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How to Recruit the Best Interns for Your Nonprofit

Many students and pre-professionals look to resume-boosting internships to provide valuable experience before entering the workforce. An internship program can also be an enriching—and essential—part of a nonprofit’s operations. In fact, offering internships goes hand in hand with your philosophy of giving back to the community.

The benefits of an internship program

Unsure whether an internship program is truly a viable option for your nonprofit? We believe good interns are worth the effort. That’s because interns can:

  • bring a fresh perspective and new approaches to projects
  • offer tech and social media expertise
  • assist with seasonal projects
  • improve your organization’s visibility on campuses
  • inspire productivity and enthusiasm
  • fill knowledge and skill gaps

According to a survey by National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), nearly 40% of employers reported higher 5-year retention rates among employees who were hired through internship programs. If your organization is looking to hire knowledgeable, long-term employees, consider opening your doors to interns.

Whether you’re looking for a little extra help or your next superstar employee, we’ve put together some tips to help your nonprofit recruit the best and brightest interns.

Finding the right intern

Plan ahead

Make sure you understand where interns fit into your organization before taking them on. Gather your staff and brainstorm; think about what expertise you can offer, and designate staff who feel comfortable supervising interns. The best internships are project-based, so have a clear sense of upcoming projects that will keep your interns engaged and challenged. You’ll also want to set manageable goals, timelines, and deliverables for your interns. Remember, students may need to solidify an internship months in advance, so give yourself plenty of time to plan and recruit.

Get social

Reach students where you’ll find them the most—online! Use your organization’s social media platforms to advertise your internship program. Synchronize your outreach schedule with the school year, so that your campaign is relevant to students. Many will begin sourcing for-credit internships during the summer months, so run a campaign in June to get them thinking—and excited—about your organization! If you set up a table at a campus job fair, be sure to include your social media handles so that students can keep in touch. (A simple business card with the tagline “Follow us!” will do the trick.)

Connect with campuses

More college and high school campuses are incorporating experiential learning or internship requirements into their curriculums. According to this 2018 report, 40% of surveyed interns were sourced from direct contacts at campus career centers. Create a contact list of internship coordinators at high schools, colleges, and universities in your community. Reach out to the people on your list, and be sure to ask questions like these:

  • Does the campus require internships for credit?
  • What should students get out of the experience?
  • How can your nonprofit be added to the campus’s internship locations database?
  • What are the best ways to inform students about position openings?

Communicate the benefits

Whether you’re meeting prospective interns at a job fair or posting about your program on social media, you’ll want to communicate the advantages of working for your organization. You may not be able to offer paid internships, but nonprofits like yours can still provide a rewarding educational experience. So let prospective interns and internship coordinators know what makes your program special. Why will an internship at your program be a rewarding learning experience? What expertise can your organization offer? What kinds of projects will your interns be involved in? Developing clear answers to questions like these will help you relay the types of information students and their advisors want to know.

Be flexible

Try your best to work within the campus’s parameters, especially if students are receiving course credit. Campuses will require internships of varying lengths throughout the year. Plan your internships around the campus calendar. So it’s important to be understanding—remember students are balancing exams and other school activities in addition to their internship work. Your flexibility may be worth the effort if it results in a better experience for your intern. Plus, their respective campuses are more likely to work with you again!

Offer more than busy work (and coffee runs)

Internship coordinators and advisors want to know that your organization will provide experiential learning opportunities that support classroom curriculum. Have you been meaning to set up a tutoring program? Still not sure what to post on Twitter? Let your interns take it on! With proper supervision, have your interns outline a strategy and implement the plan. When your interns feel excited about the work ahead, they’re more likely to sign on to your program and produce exceptional work.

Tip: Students look for internships with clearly defined roles. Advertise openings using specific titles like “Social Media Intern” instead of “Intern Needed.”

Supervise, respect, engage

You have the opportunity to mentor the next generation of thinkers. An effective supervisor offers consistent feedback, encouragement, and opportunity for revision. Three out of four respondents in this survey felt their internship had a significantly positive impact on their collaboration and communication skills. Help interns to exercise habits like collaboration by inviting them to become a valued member of your team. Include interns in employee gatherings, meetings, and team building activities. Many will apply to your program because they’re passionate about the causes your organization addresses. So keep your eager interns engaged by inviting them to share their voice.

Encourage reflection

Reflection is an important habit to practice in all areas of life. Before interns head out the door, have them synthesize their experience in writing. It will help them to review accomplishments, challenges, and work produced during their time with your organization. Ask interns about what they loved and what could be improved about their experience. This information will serve as valuable feedback to help improve your internship program going forward.

Write great recommendations

You won’t be able to offer every intern a full-time position. However, you can write great recommendations to help your best and brightest get the job they deserve. Be sure to keep notes on their work throughout. Set up a check-in or review process to deliver timely feedback throughout the experience, and to give your interns the chance to improve. Recommendations are a major selling point for many internships, so if you offer recommendations as an incentive, it’s important to deliver on your word.

Understand labor laws

Make sure you understand U.S. labor laws before implementing an internship program. Interns who receive compensation are considered employees and must be paid at least minimum wage. This government form will help you classify your interns and understand labor laws. And check out this article for more about internship program best (and legal) practices.  

In conclusion

In an increasingly competitive job market, internships can give students and pre-professionals the boost they need to secure meaningful work. As you incorporate interns into your organization, you’ll be able to take on new projects and uphold your mission: to serve those in your community. Does your organization have a successful internship program? We’d love to feature it in an upcoming blog post! Contact us at