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Feb 13, 2014 | Insights

Working with Interns: Ideas for Success

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Like many of you, this time of the year can get me a bit “bummed out.” For me, it signifies the end of the summer and all of the accompanying fair weather activities – not to mention delicious summer food.

Last week though, as I sifted through a pile of folders on my desk labeled Special Projects, I remembered the upside of this post-Labor Day holiday time of year. While summer may be ending, those of us in the nonprofit sector can look forward to all of the students who will be heading back to school – and internship opportunities.

So instead of feeling melancholy about fewer cookouts and beach days ahead, my thoughts ran to, Which school will provide my next intern(s)? As I reviewed my Special Projects pile, I knew the folders would actually end up in one pile labeled "for intern."

Increasing Resources for Low Financial Costs

We nonprofit managers and staff are adept at finding innovative ways to increase resources within the financial constraints faced by most organizations. By doing so, we are better able to accomplish our nonprofits’ missions. One of the most valuable ways to enhance resources is to increase our workforce with the aid of interns.

I know from personal experience that interns can make a big difference in managing a department’s workflow. At one point a couple of years ago, I found myself with a number of projects to do. They were neither urgent nor a regular part of my day-to-day duties, and, probably for those very reasons, I could never the find time to get to them and the pile just kept growing. After making a couple of inquiries, I found an intern to handle all of these projects.

Another time, after losing my administrative staff person to a lay off, I needed help with some of the aspects of the former staffer’s work. As we know, when a staff member leaves due to lay offs, that person’s work still remains. As mine was not the only office affected, I created a more formal internship program to help us fill this void on a temporary basis.

From these personal experiences and those of colleagues, I have come to realize just how beneficial an internship experience can be for an employer. From conversations and exit interviews with interns, I know that they benefit equally from the experience, using it to gain skills and jumpstart their careers.

Guidelines for Working with Interns

While the examples I’ve given were positive, as with anything, an internship program can have its share of pros and cons. These experiences, both good and bad, have helped me establish some guidelines for working with interns and improving Third Sector New England’s internship program.

Here are some practices used (in no particular order) that have helped us develop our successful program:

  1. Build a relationship with your contact at the university, school or training program responsible for providing your intern. Find out as much as you can about the program, expectations, background and skills of the interns as well as the duration of the program.

  2. Know the scope of the work the intern is being asked to perform beforehand.

  3. Create a job description to share with the intern. Together with the intern, discuss and agree on the work expectations and set goals with timelines.

  4. Conduct interviews with prospective interns to ensure they are a good match for your organization/department. Check references, if you find it necessary.

  5. Where possible, treat the intern in ways similar to an employee. Provide them with a brief orientation or tour and allow them to attend staff meetings or other appropriate employee type activities.

  6. Be prepared to invest the time necessary. In most cases, you will not only fill the role of a supervisor, but also of a coach, mentor, trainer, etc. Plan to spend a few minutes daily with your intern, at least in the early part of the internship. Build time into your schedule to help her or him become acclimated to your office, colleagues and the culture of the organization – as well as the type of results expected.

  7. Provide the intern with feedback on his or her progress.

  8. Check in with the intern regarding their career goals and aspirations. Try to build in work assignments that align with these objectives.

  9. Keep the intern challenged. While menial tasks may come with the territory, do not assign only those projects that no one else wants. As the intern’s knowledge and skill level progresses, assign projects accordingly.

  10. For unpaid internships, consider whether you can provide any perks such as an MBTA pass, lunch or anything else to motivate the intern. Better yet, find the funds to extend employment beyond the internship.

What Do You think?

A number of best practices contribute to a successful internship program. Do you have a practice to share with us?