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.

16 Responses to Making the case for volunteer internships

  1. Kate cotton says:

    We had a very successful internship last year within MCCC, Katie Gettins who did all the space work for an exhibition of patient, carer and staff art work which highlighted the work that we do in art therapy and gave Katie, a university student an opportunity to manage an event coordinating the work of MC Head Office, the Hampstead hospice and the R A schools. Katie lives in Wales and we paid her travel and subsistence expenses.a mutually beneficial experience.
    I understand the concerns you have expressed and hope you can find a system that addresses these. On erns while enabling us to continue a mutually good experience?

  2. Justin Davis Smith says:

    Thanks Kate, really good to hear of such a positive experience

  3. Dan Wiseman says:

    Thank you for an interesting and well thought out piece.

    I am slightly shocked, however, that in the section of where people can get further advice there is not a single mention of Volunteer Centres.

    Why is this?

    As a Volunteer Centre Manager I find this particularly concerning as NCVO have previously touted our Unique Selling Point as our expertise in good practice in Volunteer Management (

    If NCVO do believe this then surely they should be promoting this aspect of our service in such documents?

    I would be very interested to hear your response.

  4. Justin Davis Smith says:

    Thanks Dan – glad you liked the piece. Volunteer Centres do feature on the NCVO Volunteering page which we signpost to in the further information section of the report, but I agree they could be given more prominence and we will make the change.


  5. Internships are an excellent idea. It is so frustrating for many organisations to get individuals who want to help out and learn new skills, but as soon as the they are given an opportunity to get a placement, the local job centre expects the organisation to offer a job almost immediately. There is no opportunity to learn the job,to acquire skills, and develop themselves. By giving and internship – taking the pressure of the individual to find paid work, a more long term solution can be achieved to the growing problem of getting a job without any skills or experience.

  6. John Hepburn says:

    Most of this is really helpful, but I’m still left a bit confused by the discussion on volunteer, unpaid and paid internships. If a volunteer isn’t paid, isn’t it an unpaid internship? Is it just the expression “unpaid internship” that’s the problem?

    • Justin Davis Smith says:

      Thanks John, this gets to the heart of the matter. I agree semantically it seems a bit confusing but it’s actually very clear. In law an intern has to be either an employee/worker or a volunteer. If the former then they should be paid, yet we know unfortunately that all too often this doesn’t happen. This isn’t volunteering and it threatens to bring genuine and valuable volunteer internship programmes into disrepute. So an unpaid internship is an internship which is a job and should be paid. In other words it shouldn’t exist. Whereas a volunteer internship is a genuine volunteering opportunity for which the question of pay doesn’t arise.

  7. Bret Willers says:

    I have not read this yet but should prove to be very useful.

    We must not forget that many internships favour young people from privileged backgrounds whose parents can afford to support their children whilst getting valuable unpaid work experience. Internships can give young people from more privileged backgrounds a fast track over other potentially more able individuals whose parents are on lower incomes and unable to provide this financial support to enable their children to take up internships.

    Many roles in PR, fashion and advertising for example rely on internships and it is hardly surprising to see the socio demographic profile of people in this profession a large percentage of whom got into the roles through internships.

    I would hate to see the same happening in the charitable sector where a broader life experience and ability to empathise with a wider range of people is of benefit to the organisation especially if it focused on addressing poverty and disadvantage or having a desire to widen participation.

    I would prefer to see sponsored positions or apprenticeships that are more open and competitive. Some universities offer financial support for internships with their students particularly with post graduate courses and these offer valuable opportunities for all concerned including a payment for the host organisation for providing support to the intern.

    • Justin Davis Smith says:

      Thanks Bret, I agree with you. There is a great deal of bad practice regarding internships in many industries (particularly fashion and the professions) which reinforces socio-economic divisions in society and works against social mobility and social justice. And you are right that the charitable sector shouldn’t be immune from criticism if it does things wrong and indeed I would argue should be setting a good example to others. As we make clear in the guide charities should pay particular attention to ensure that their volunteer internship programmes don’t disqualify people from less privileged backgrounds, for example by reimbursing out of pocket expenses, offering opportunities outside of London and at home, and by being flexible with times to allow people to fit their volunteering around their job search or part time employment. I would also agree with you that volunteer internships are just one of a number of valuable interventions which can help people get into paid work, including traineeships and apprenticeships.

  8. Tony Jones says:

    I going to give a donation of £200 to a charity I am a long standing member of (almost 35-years) to help with a fundraising appeal (through a CAF Charity Account of course just to make sure HMRC picked up some of the tab). While checking out the details and nature of the appeal on their website I also looked at their recruiting page as the as the charity I work for is currently undertaking a salary benchmarking exercise and they operate in the same field.

    I spotted that they were recruiting a 3-days per week intern (unpaid) position. At this point I decided not to make a donation because of this and advised the charity of my position.

    If a position is unpaid it is clearly a volunteer role, one that we should be proud of providing rather than wrapping it up in an ‘internship’ (which is just jargon to let public and private companies take on volunteers and reduce their wage bill).

    A volunteer should also not be required to come in for 3-days a week. This makes it more like a paid position. As Brett Willers notes, such a requirement discriminates against people who are unlikely to have the financial support available to enable them to dedicate this amount of time to volunteering.

    Most of my charities volunteers do so for 0.5 – 1 day per week. Some come in on defined days of the week as we plan and provide appropriate activities for them and they enjoy being in a group. Some come in for up to 5-days per week to help. None are compelled to come in and, on occasion, we may not see a particular volunteer for a few weeks at a time. They are not neglecting their duties in any way through their absence and, apart from ensuring they are ok, we are not on their case to come in. We welcome their work for us. We do not expect their attendance as a right of employment as we do not pay them.

    I do not see how a intern (volunteer) post advertised at 3-days per week can be similar. The organisation will expect attendance for this time period and, presumably, will feel the person is failing in their duties if they attend irregularly. If they have this attitude and expect attendance they should pay for it.

    While charities abuse people through internships they will lose money from donors such as myself. Such abuse of people is not ethical (though it is currently and unfortunatley in vogue). I cannot be the first to withhold funds as a result and will not be the last.

  9. Justin Davis Smith says:

    Thanks Tony, I agree with much of your analysis: that volunteering can be of huge value, including more intensive forms of engagement (such as the five days a week some of the volunteers undertake for your organisation). I agree that volunteers should not be required to carry out 3 days a week, or indeed any other set time period – you can’t as you rightly say, compel a volunteer to come in for any length of time. Where I disagree is over whether we can legitimately label a volunteering role an internship. Our view, having spoken with a number of charities, is that you can – indeed some volunteers report liking the term – so long as it is a proper volunteering role (and includes the employability support that most volunteers expect to come with an internship) and not an unscrupulous attempt to get a paid job done for nothing.

  10. Rachel Hanson says:

    It’s great to highlight best practice but we currently adhere to the Fair Train standard and in the interests of avoiding duplication it would be good to reference this standard in your guidance.

  11. Alex Beaumont says:

    Finally got round to looking at this impressive guide today! Thanks for putting this together – it’s a good piece of work. It provides some real clarity to what is often seen as a tricky topic and I will definitely be referencing this.
    Having seen so many bad examples of where internships have been applied (as well as good), it’s good to have a clear position set out.