Show Some Love: Pay Your Interns

By on Monday, February 14, 2011

Unpaid internships are no stranger to nonprofit circles. When I worked with a Habitat for Humanity affiliate and with a youth agency, I frequently had unpaid public relations interns from a nearby college.

Sometimes working with the interns meant working with their curricular needs, like when a professor had them spend 3 months doing a highly-detailed branding study and public relations plan for nonprofit agencies, and then only gave them about 3 weeks to implement all of their wonderful ideas. Students were calling me like crazy to get copy approved, stories written, and stuff done. But it was also very worthwhile and the students executed many of their ideas to help the agency in a very short period of time.

A group of students with their own professional organization at the college volunteered to assist me with follow-up on a national Ad Council campaign’s public service announcements, helping me call hundreds of stations and newspapers about placiing the PSA’s to get more youth involved in community service. It was convenient for the student, as my office was near the building where their classes were held. I would leave them chocolate, coffee, and anything else to motivate them to work the phones at their little folding table desk we erected in a corner of the office with 2 phone lines. I wrote glowing recommendation letters to help them get jobs, provided references for them, and they got wonderful experience on a real project.

But as things progressed, and our use of interns became more like staff, we began trying to find money to pay them. It was one thing if I was basically allowing students to do a class project for our nonprofit that followed parameters set by their instructor and we were a guinea pig in their great experiment. It was another thing entirely for us to be using them for tasks that I or my assistant could have completed.

As our internship programs became formalized, I became convinced that our individual interns in particular, had to be paid, especially if we were determining their tasks. We applied for the college work study program and were able to hire and pay an intern who basically worked as an additional staff assistant, and I placed a value on giving the intern real opportunities to learn about public relations.

My individual public relations interns – I assigned them press releases to write, had them call reporters about an event with a pitch, gave them projects to manage, and asked them to write copy for our website. I tried to liaison via email with their professors, trying to make sure the professor knew what the student was being asked to do and to ensure I was in the loop on any of the college’s requirements for the internship.

My main requirements – which remain today – are that interns must be self-starters, able to write, and not require me to babysit them. I don’t have time to stand over an intern and make sure they are working, or to correct basic grammar and spelling. I will give interns real things to do, since I think it matters to them that their work counts for something. The press release copy is always better, when the intern knows it is really going to be sent out and put on our website. Many of my interns have stayed in touch over the years and I’m still a frequent job reference for them.

As I moved on to other nonprofit organizations, I tried to hire interns who were paid and would get real hands-on experience. If we couldn’t afford an hourly wage, we offered a semester stipend, tied to the amount of hours they were expected to work on a weekly basis. I was surprised at how competitive my internships became, when I started offering just a simple stipend. The quality of applicants improved significantly, and the students were hard-working and often moved into other staff jobs at the nonprofit. We still had volunteers who helped with specific projects, but having a paid intern changed the dynamic.

With 30% of recent college graduates unemployed, students are increasingly willing and eager to accept unpaid internships. But should we offer them? Unpaid internships have recently garnered press, as there is growing concern that the practice is illegal, even as the number of unpaid internships has increased during the economic recession.

But there are also moral issues involved. Unpaid internships mean that these real-life work opportunities are often only available to students who are very well-off and don’t require an income to support themselves, or who work  multiple jobs in order to support themselves while completing an internship. The Public Relations Society of America recently declared that it is:

PRSA believes it to be ethically wrong to employ anyone who adds real value to an agency or employer without compensating them for their work — whether that compensation is monetary or in the form of educational credits. If billable work is being performed by an intern, he or she deserves some form of legal compensation.

So the bottom line is – if you are using interns like staff – they should be paid. Show some love this Valentine’s Day and figure out a way to provide compensation for your interns.

Show some love to your public relations interns and pay them.
Photo courtesy of the Photoshop Heart Brushes Collection at
Web Resources Depot.

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