What do unpaid internships say about us?

by Samantha Reeve, Policy Officer, Voice4Change England



At a time when charities face increasing financial pressure and there are more and more unemployed graduates, surely internships benefit both charity and intern, right? On the face of it, it seems like a win-win; charities get highly skilled workers that can offer fresh perspectives and new insights whilst interns can develop new skills, try out the charity sector for size and build their CV.

It’s certainly not a practice that’s going away anytime soon. A brief scan of the jobsites offering opportunities in the third sector and dedicated internship sites show plenty of charities with vacancies for interns. Often these are unpaid, only offering compensation for lunch and travel expenses, and normally asking for a minimum commitment of at around 3 days a week, for 3 months. With an endless stream of graduates competing for a dwindling number of jobs many have no choice but to complete several unpaid internships, before they really have a fighting chance for jobs in the sector.

Charities are not obligated to pay interns as they often fall under the category of ‘voluntary worker’ but what effect does this have on the charities sector? Particularly for BME charities?

It’s been a few years since this article appeared in the Guardian, but the opening quote “You have to be rich to work for charity now” still rings true. Working unpaid, often for months at a time, is simply impossible for most young people. As Carl Roper of the TUC points out in the Public World paper ‘Ethics and Interns’, not everyone can work for free, and internships benefit “only a very small group of rather fortunate young people”. Furthermore many internships are based in London, and frequently only cover travel expenses within London zones 1-6, excluding anyone who does not live in the city and cannot afford the high cost of living in London . As the campaigning organisation Intern Aware points out, “We think that if charities want the most talented workers, and not just those who can afford to work for free, then they should pay their interns a fair wage”

As a sector that prides itself of championing equality, what are unpaid internships saying about us? If internships are one of the only routes into a career in the charity sector, and unpaid internships are only a viable option for those from privileged backgrounds, how is this sector going to look in future? I think there is a direct connection between the entry points into a career in a charity and having a workforce that reflects the population and perhaps more importantly, the communities we support.

The aforementioned Ethics and Interns paper concludes with a series of critical questions that organisations should ask themselves when about an internship programme, such as “are your own values being compromised by taking advantage of job scarcity?”, “are you sure you have the right balance of your needs and theirs?”, “if you didn’t have an intern would you need a paid worker to do their work?” and “is the availability of unpaid interns distorting your volunteer policy?” I would add that it is also important to make a clear distinction between volunteers, interns (paid and unpaid) and staff.

In my opinion, interns should; be paid (preferably a living wage) should have an opportunity to shadow staff, be fully supported, trained, given freedom to decide their own workplans, have flexibility over their working hours and are not regularly doing work that is vital to the organisation. But it is up to every organisation to ensure that their policies on interns and volunteers reflects their values.