Are Unpaid Internships Ethical?

I’ve noticed some chatter lately about unpaid interns at non-profit organizations, and whether the practice is ethical or not.  My kneejerk reaction was a yes answer: after all, most non-profits have tiny budgets, and it’s hard to get a non-profit job in this economy.  If someone wants to work for free, why not let them?

The problem with unpaid interns, though, gets at the heart of what’s wrong with the way many non-profits do fundraising, as well as at some of the problems non-profits have with recruiting a diverse staff.

Non-profits have to make choices about the funding they’ll accept, and most small non-profits run on a shoestring budget because they don’t want to compromise the values of the mission by taking big money (if it’s even available) from funders that would attach too many conditions.  Fundraising is often haphazard and not very well thought-out, and this tendency extends to internship programs.

Often, small non-profits don’t have time to think about what’s smart when it comes to fundraising.  A fundraising event or an appeal letter might actually cost more in staff time than it brings in with donations, but there isn’t enough thoughtful planning to reveal this shortcoming.   The same can be true with interns–an organization finds out that someone is willing to work for free and says “sure, come on board!” without thinking about the implications of that decision.

It’s no surprise that people who are willing to work for free are often middle to upper class students and recent graduates who have some family support.  They may be dedicated to the cause, great employees, and tremendously helped by an internship.  Interning may be crucial to their professional development, and may keep talent in the non-profit world.  But we can’t ignore the fact that unpaid internships tend to keep experienced non-profit hiring pools middle-to-upper class–which also means disproportionately white.

Non-profits often have difficulties finding qualified minority candidates for an open position, but it’s important to think about one of the reasons why this is true.  It’s hard to get a non-profit job with no non-profit experience.  An internship is the most obvious way to get this experience, as well as personal connections.  If we want more a more diverse group of qualified people applying for non-profit jobs, then we need to make an effort to offer internships to those who might not be able to afford an unpaid position.

This might mean not offering internships every semester, or cutting a program that offers unpaid internships with some modest benefit in order to provide funding for a fully paid internship.  It’s worth it because of the broad implications for the movement, and the tremendous opportunity a paid internship can give a candidate who couldn’t otherwise apply.  It also means that the organization is likely to have an even more talented pool of people to choose from, which will pay off in time saved by other paid staff.  Again, it comes back to looking carefully at the full financial picture.  If staff members are supervising a large team of unpaid interns, a single paid intern might be more cost-effective.

From my perspective as someone who couldn’t afford an unpaid internship during school or after, I think it’s particularly important not to underestimate the dedication of someone who has to be paid to work.  I’ve heard the argument that students and graduates who really want to work in non-profits will find a way to do so for free for a little while, that this custom weeds out those who really want to do it.  But this simply isn’t a reliable mechanism.  Those who work for free may indeed be dedicated, but taking out a large loan to fund an internship period simply isn’t viable for many of us.

Furthermore, those who do work for free and are funded by outside sources often aren’t that dedicated to the cause.  When I graduated from law school, a lot of big firms were doing deferral programs where they’d pay a new attorney $40 or $50K to work at a non-profit for a year, saving half the usual starting salary and costing the non-profit nothing.  Non-profits jumped at the chance for free labor, while recent graduates who planned to spend a lifetime doing non-profit work were unemployed.  These graduates would be thrilled to make $40K upon graduation, but the graduates in the programs often felt that it wasn’t much money, didn’t apply themselves to the job, and of course never returned once they transferred into the big firm.  When I look at these programs in terms of long-term gain, it’s hard to see how the non-profit wins.

About Avory

Avory Faucette is a queer feminist activist, writer, and public speaker. Zie graduated from the University of Iowa with a JD in 2009, focusing on international human rights and gender/sexuality issues in the law. Hir current work focuses on queer identity, policy, and marginalized identities under the queer umbrella. As a genderqueer person, zie comments frequently on non-binary identity, transgender and genderqueer issues, and media coverage of these populations. Zie also speaks at colleges, universities, and events on transgender and queer issues and conducts trainings on related topics.

Posted on November 28, 2011, in activism, movement building and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Agreed! The same can be applied to the AmeriCorps VISTA program. Because of the job market, there are so many experienced and college educated citizens serving as VISTAs to primarily obtain some meaningful work experience–though they’re minimally compensated. VISTAs save the nonprofit thousands of dollars!

    Interns, and those in other non-staff positions, should be compensated in some way because they perform meaningful and significant work that aids in the operation and success of the organization.

    Also, from my experience, there is no way that an all White nonprofit board can successfully recruit PoC to serve as board or staff members. You can’t make a honest claim to valuing diversity when it’s not reflected among the leadership.

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