Making the case for volunteer internships

Internships have been a thorny issue for some years, primarily in the private sector, with examples of exploitation in the media, politics and fashion industry. More recently, it is those charities offering internships that have been under close scrutiny.

Being unpaid, volunteer intern positions have been the focus for much of this scrutiny, and are posing some important questions for the volunteering movement. The scandal of charities auctioning off highly-prized internships in the professions at fundraising galas has also threatened to bring the practice into disrepute.

Given the challenges, I’ve asked charities why the use of the term ‘intern’ is useful and whether, in the end, it’s worth the hassle. What has come across clearly is that where they are genuine volunteering opportunities, volunteer internships can be valuable for both the volunteer and the organisation.

Genuine volunteering

Offering volunteer internships as part of a volunteering programme can help organisations to meet the demand for skills-based volunteering opportunities. Also, it’s clear that there is real demand from potential volunteers themselves. One national charity, advertising for a campaigns volunteer, had to re-advertise because of too few suitable applications. Advertising the same role, with the same role description, but this time as a ‘campaigns volunteer intern’ led to a flurry of applications, and to a volunteer being selected.

As well as practical issues, it’s important to reflect on wider issue of the volunteering movement’s values and what these mean for volunteer internships. All volunteer-involving organisations must strive to be open, inclusive and accessible. Many major volunteer-involving organisations have a wider organisational mission concerned with tackling social exclusion or supporting some of the most vulnerable members of our society. In this context, it is vital that the way organisations recruit, support and manage their volunteers reflects these values.

Open to all

For volunteer intern opportunities, this means that recruitment should be fair, open and transparent. It means that the usual volunteering good practice, exemplified in the Investing in Volunteers quality standard, should be used to guide the support and management of the volunteers. It means that charities should strive hard to remove barriers stopping volunteers from low income backgrounds taking advantage of opportunities. This may mean offering opportunities across the country rather than simply in London and ensuring roles are part-time, flexible and can be fitted around paid work.

Fundamentally, organisations need to make sure that the role they’re offering is a genuine volunteer role. The word ‘intern’ can cause confusion, but the legal position is very straightforward- an intern must be a volunteer, a worker or an employee – the word intern has no independent legal meaning. Charities should ensure that they are clear before recruiting what the role is. If the role is a paid one then it should be paid – end of. There should be no such thing as an unpaid internship, just paid or volunteer.

Encouraging good practice

So, paid internships and volunteer internships that are genuine volunteering opportunities, can offer value to both volunteers and the organisations to which they give their time. If charities choose to label their volunteering as an internship they need to ensure that they provide an appropriate level of support geared to enhancing an individual’s skills and experience with a view to improving their employability. People are attracted to an internship position because they believe it will help them in their search for paid work. Charities need to be upfront about meeting this expectation. They can’t guarantee that a volunteer internship will lead to paid work but they must structure the internship with this goal in mind.

As charities offering volunteer internships come under increasing scrutiny, it is important that organisations get it right.

Are charities good employers?

Our S7 strategic workshop at Evolve 2015 will tackle this thorny issue. We’ll discuss recent controversies over zero hour contracts, unpaid interns, and senior salaries, to help you develop your organisation’s ethical employment strategy.

Find out more about Evolve 2015


To help ensure this, NCVO has produced new good practice guidance on volunteer internships, which sets out a number of principles for organisations to follow. The charity sector is rightly held to a high standard by the public, donors and others. We need to make sure that practice in the sector on volunteer internships meets these high levels of expectation.

I hope that the good practice document will support good quality volunteer internships in those charities that offer them, while challenging those in our sector who are misusing internship positions to change their practice and raise their game.

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Justin was executive director of volunteering and development at NCVO and chief executive of Volunteering England. He is now a senior research fellow at City University Cass Business School’s Centre for Charity Effectiveness.

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