Internships: If it looks like work and sounds like work, then it probably is

We have seen several recent news items rightly calling out the unfair involvement of interns. In February, we also saw how HMRC are now starting to crack down on employers who are treating unpaid interns as workers and not paying them what they are due. This is a good move. Where people are being asked to do work, then let’s not cover this up by calling it an unpaid internship. We last saw a public discussion on the topic in 2015 and you can read NCVO’s view on that here.

This can be a tricky area to fully get to grips with though, and it’s easy to become confused whether internships are a good thing or not. To help, charities are starting to make a clearer distinction between unpaid interns and those who volunteer with them.

Let’s cut to the chase: legally, there is no such thing as an intern. Originally meaning ‘doctors in training’, the term is now used by organisations to describe roles which people take on to gain experience in a particular field, be that paid or unpaid. The expectation is that you can learn the ropes while being supported throughout. It’s also a term that young people like, understand, and want to be a part of.

Lifting the lid on internships

It’s easy for an organisation to call anything an internship – and why wouldn’t they? The word conjures an image of new opportunities, learning and vibrancy. If an internship is with a charity, you get the added bonus of supporting a cause you love. However, if we look at the mechanics of internships, they are just like any other position in an organisation:

  • Paid internships are work. You are often working under a contract which guides your work, makes your obligations clear and sets out what payment you get in return, which (other than with voluntary workers) is above the national minimum wage.
  • Unpaid internships are volunteering. You are giving your time for free, without obligation, to a cause you care about. You have your expenses paid for, but you are receiving much more in experience, training and satisfaction.

So, when we are talking about internships, we are usually talking about one of the above. Useful, as both these types of role come with a raft of guidance on what fair and unfair is.

So, are all volunteering roles an unpaid internship?

Nope – most volunteering roles are not unpaid internships. Unpaid internships sit alongside the range of other ways people can give time to charities. They all have the core features of volunteering at their heart though:

  • Giving time for the benefit of others
  • Done without obligation
  • Both sides stand to gain something

With millions of people volunteering in different ways, it makes sense that different sets of expectations get different names. You can take up micro-volunteering or full time social action, give time to a sports club, help at your child’s school, be on a board, or volunteer. While all these things raise different expectations in our minds, they all have volunteering at their core. Unpaid interns are volunteers too, who think of themselves as having a focus on personal development in a time-limited, structured role which is linked to their career path.

But unpaid internships are unfair, right?

Some might be, but not all of them. This is where good practice in volunteer management comes in to play. Over the years, we have come to a consensus of what is fair when people volunteer. These things are true when it comes to unpaid internships too.

Let’s consider the following example:

A person is required to volunteer 35 hours a week for a year to be able to get a job in a particular sector. They are told off if they don’t turn up to complete their duties. They may not receive formal training, but they will get the experience needed to enter a certain profession.

The volunteer managers reading this will spot that doesn’t look or sound like volunteering. There is a requirement to be there to enter the profession meaning this role has become an obligation. It requires volunteering 35 hours per week, excluding those who also must also work to earn a living alongside this role. There is little offered to motivate or recognise the volunteer’s effort. Compare this with the example:

A person voluntarily gives 15 hours a week in a sector they enjoy. They don’t receive pay, but their expenses are covered, and they are offered training and mentoring. It helps them decide if this is the career for them. At any time, they can apply for a job in that field and while their experience is useful, it isn’t necessary to get a job.

If it looks like volunteering and sounds like volunteering…

Bad apples are bad. But that doesn’t mean all apples are bad. The same is true with unpaid internships. To help move unpaid internships from ‘bad’ to ‘good’, here are some key principles to stick by.

  • Be clear what the role is and its purpose before recruiting.
  • Ensure that a volunteer internship is a genuine volunteering opportunity.
  • Make sure volunteering opportunities are genuinely inclusive and accessible.
  • Support volunteer interns in accordance with good practice standards in volunteer management.
  • Ensure that volunteer intern positions do not undermine fair recruitment procedures.
  • Provide opportunities for evaluation and regular feedback.
  • Recognise the contribution of volunteer interns

Over the coming months, we’ll be checking through our guide to internships to make sure it is still relevant and up to date. If you have any comments, please do email me at

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Avatar photo Shaun is volunteering development manager at NCVO, overseeing strategy for volunteer management and good practice. Previously, he was head of volunteering at Samaritans and is currently a volunteer trustee of Greater London Volunteering.

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