(Image via Flickr user afagen)
Controversy sparked when Lean In Editor Jessica Bennett posted an opportunity for an unpaid internship on her personal Facebook page. The post gained nearly 250 comments, most of them from people outraged over the fact that a successful organization that fights for women’s rights was hiring unpaid workers.
The controversy over unpaid internships isn’t a new one, with lawsuits affecting companies such as NBC, Conde Nast, Hearst Corporation and Fox Searchlight – so much so that there are entire websites, such as UnpaidInternsLawsuits.com, dedicated to collecting information about the legal battles.
Students who completed paid internships can expect to receive more job offers and higher salaries according to the Bethlehem, PA-based National Association of Colleges and employers. Results of NACE’s 2013 Student Survey show that 63.1 percent of paid interns received at least one job offer, while only 37 percent of unpaid interns received a job offer.
In addition, unpaid internships can be a barrier to degree completion for those who cannot afford to take them.
“When we looked at our group of students who were seeking the Certified Nonprofit Professional credential, CNP – that’s what we award – one of the barriers for our non-white students was the unpaid internship,” said Susan Tomlinson Schmidt, Vice President of the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance. “We did an analysis and found that the unpaid internship was a significant barrier for our students.”
28.1 percent of internships in 2013 were completed at nonprofits according to the NACE.
So where exactly do nonprofits, which often lack the capacity to pay interns, fall into this debate?
The US Department of Labor has set standards for unpaid interns in Fact Sheet #71: Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act, and a six prong test must be met for an employer to not pay an intern:
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- The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.
Nonprofits must also follow these standards, according to legal experts. However, interns at nonprofits can be classified as volunteers as long as they are properly described as such. The Fact Sheet includes a footnote on this distinction:
“The FLSA makes a special exception under certain circumstances . . . for individuals who volunteer for humanitarian purposes for private nonprofit food banks. WHD also recognizes an exception for individuals who volunteer their time, freely and without anticipation of compensation for religious, charitable, civic, or humanitarian purposes to non-profit organizations. . .”
Unpaid Nonprofit Internships Plentiful in Philadelphia
Unpaid nonprofit internships are abundant in Philadelphia region: the ACLU-PA is looking for an unpaid Winter 2014 Communications Intern, Community Learning Center for a Career Coach Intern in Adult Literacy, and the Bicycle Coalition of Philadelphia was searching for an unpaid fall education intern, just to name a few.
Some of these internships offer school credit, such as Mighty Writers and ACLU-PA.
“We kind of prefer internships for credit… I’d say the bulk of our interns are getting college credit, and it’s kind of corresponding with their course load,” said Mighty Writers Development Director Maggie Leyman. “We think that paid internships are definitely the way to go and want to do that as soon as possible, but we’re kind of not in the position to do that right now because of our size.”
Caitlin Stevenson, 26, an intern for Mighty Writers said she would not have been able to complete her internship if she wasn’t receiving credit.
“I’m very happy that I decided to pursue an internship, she said. “My work schedule would never allow for it unless it was tied to school in some way. I hope that people in all fields continue to see the value in interning, especially for older students like myself.”
However, schools sometimes limit the amount of internships you’re allowed to complete for credit. In Temple University’s Communication Studies program, for example, students are allowed a max of four internship credits.
Stevenson said the Temple University’s requirements for her Education and Secondary Education major can also limit internship opportunities.
“I do not believe there is a limit to how many internship credits you can complete; however, there are only three spaces for this type of course/elective in my major and they also require a class labeled ‘writing intensive,’ so in a way it does,” she said.
Due to these limitations, students take internships without receiving credit just to gain experience.
“It’s pretty rare that we have a strictly unpaid internship where someone just signs up and wants to intern for free. We don’t really seek those people out, but somebody comes to us and says ‘I really want to intern here and I’m not getting anything for it but I really want to’ and we say yes,” Leyman said.
Still, students value the experiences internships have to offer.
“Students shouldn’t overlook unpaid internships because they may not have a monetary value immediately. They have value that can be beyond money such as experience and networking connections,” said Nicole Sardella, former Arts Reach and Walnut Street Theatre intern.
“In both positions, I was given work beyond simply grabbing coffee for the staff. I was able to learn about the field and gain real, valuable experience.”
Alternatives to Paid and Unpaid Internships
Some nonprofits, such as the Walnut Street Theatre, Campus Philly and United Way offer stipends for internships. This can open up the opportunities to students who simply can’t work for free.
The Walnut Street Theater offers some unpaid internships during the school year, but they offer stipends for students who help with summer camp as well as 30 paid apprenticeships each year in different areas from marketing to acting to education. Campus Philly allows its interns to choose between academic credit for the internship or a small stipend.
United Way offers either minimum wage or a small stipend as well as academic credit.
“As a small organization, United Way of Greater Philadelphia and Southern New Jersey sponsors internships to develop talent in the industry, even though we may not be able to hire participants for full-time positions after the program. We welcome interns when we have suitable projects that will provide a meaningful work experience,” said Lynn Giardinelli, Vice President of Human Resources and Ethics Officer at United Way.
“Generally, interns are paid an hourly rate or minimal stipend of no more than $600 and receive academic credit through an already established educational program at an accredited college or university. We chose this strategy to be in compliance with the Department of Labor six-prong test for interns.”
Other organizations, such as The Civic House and Philly Fellows, work to provide funding for nonprofit internships and fellowships, which potentially opens up internships and fellowships to more students.
The Civic Center at the University of Pennsylvania has offered ‘Public Interest Internship Funds‘ to disburse funds to students for summer nonprofit internships since 2006. The Civic House awards $1,500 -$3,000 to each student for travel and living expenses. They award 10-12 scholarships a year.
“Students apply for these funds during the spring semester,” said Nora Blumenstein, Program Coordinator at Civic House. “Their application includes a resume, a personal statement detailing how the internship relates to career goals, passions, learning goals, etc., and a letter of support from the organization where the student intends to complete his or her internship detailing the nature of the student’s responsibilities, assurance the position is available to the student, and the dates/hours per week of the internship.”
The Philly Fellows 2013-2014 class.
Philly Fellows also helps bridge the gap between college and the real world. They work with nonprofit organizations and Americorps*Vista to provide 15-20 fellowships a year to recent graduates in Philadelphia to help create future civic leaders.
“We really want to tap into the great college networks we already have in the region and take some top graduates from those schools and tie them into the nonprofit sector, give them really meaningful experience in their first year in the career world, outside of college, and help build up their networks and give them the skills that they need to thrive in the sector in the long term,” said Tim Ifill, Executive Director of Philly Fellows.