Recruiting Unpaid Interns

Over the past weeks, I’ve seen an enormous number of unpaid internships advertised in the DC area.  Many of them are advertised over and over and over again, and upon closer inspection, it’s not hard to see why.  While you may represent a good organization, recruiting good workers is all about how you sell the internship.  It’s not really all that hard for an unemployed professional or recent college grad to find an unpaid internship, so if you want the best of the best, you’re going to have to do better than listing administrative duties and offering a “great experience” or the chance to “see how an office works.”

I’ve listed below some ideas for recruiting unpaid interns or volunteers.  The job market may be just awful now, particularly for progressive campaigners/politicos who’ve just lost an election.  But that doesn’t mean we’re all going to be willing to take anything that can go on our resumes, particularly if you aren’t going to bother to tell us what we can get out of it, too.

1) Writing Samples: When applying for jobs, most recent graduates often have nothing to offer beyond a thesis entitled: “Movement in the 1850s: The Environmental Repercussions of the Oxen Who Died Trying to Ford the River.”  I’m not recommending you let them write a speech for the White House Correspondent’s Dinner, but give them an opportunity to draft something they can submit when job hunting in later years – a memo on the field plan that includes numbers and targeted outreach initiatives, talking points for brief remarks to a group of students, or even the first draft of a short press release.  Give them a product they can take with them once the campaign/internship is over.

2) Principal Meeting:  Most of us aren’t running huge, well-funded nonprofits or Presidential campaigns – we’re working small, low budget, and local.  Since this is the case, offer your intern one breakfast meeting or coffee with your principal.  This might seem silly to you –for a small nonprofit or consulting group, the intern will inevitably run across your Executive Director.  However, as any working professional knows, there’s a difference between saying hello as you pass someone’s desk, and having an actual, planned conversation over coffee or bagels.  Like all people in some type of relationship, interns often just want someone important to listen.  I promise you this breakfast will be one of the highlights of their internship.

3) Access to Networking Listservs: My tech-y friends tell me this term isn’t used anymore – oh well.  There are about a hundred email lists in the D.C. area alone I’d guess (I presume, cuz I’m on about half of them).  Promise your intern that you’ll get him/her on at least 3 of them – whether they’re well-known job posting sites like the Tom Manatos list, or just a community of like-minded people, like the Women’s Information Network.  Remember that interns are often new to the field or to the area – it makes a world of difference to an intern to feel connected to a broader community and to have the opportunity to participate in a bigger conversation.

4) Information ABOUT, not just opportunity to attend, events: One of my summer internships promised to let me attend briefings and speaking events.  That’s great, except I had no idea where to hear about such events or where/when/how they worked.  If you live in D.C., you’re aware that Brookings, Center for American Progress, etc., hold briefings on various issues.  Let your intern know that your organization will try to loop them in on at least one activity every week or two.  Expecting your intern to magically know about these opportunities and ask to attend them is expecting too much for someone who has just moved to the area or is new in the field – give them a little guidance here.

5) Leadership Opportunity: You’re likely hoping your interns will spend most of their time answering phones, sorting mail, door-knocking, or phone banking.  We’ve all done these jobs, and they have to be done.  But promise to give your interns an opportunity to design or have a large role in at least one longer-term project.  This can include doing research to help prep for a committee hearing or handling the logistics of an upcoming speaking event or fundraiser.  Day to day tasks are learning opportunities too, but I guarantee you your interns will work their hardest if you let them feel like they have some “ownership” over some important project or activity – something to nurture and call their own.

6) Money: Yes, I know; this is what you’re trying to avoid doing.  But think about it like donating to charity or a good cause – every little bit helps.  Someone is giving you 20-40 hours (often more) of free work.  See if you really can’t squeeze out $300 to help subsidize housing costs, a transportation stipend (metro fares can be pricey!), or anything at all.  Just that little bit extra can make the difference between making ends meet for an intern, and not being able to do the internship at all.

Can anybody think of any other ideas?  Things you’ve gotten to do as an intern or else wish you had?

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4 Responses to Recruiting Unpaid Interns

  1. I usually have interns re-write their resume during their last week and then sit down with them to make sure they have accounted for their experiences in the most beneficial possible way.

  2. Allen: That's a great idea! I know my resume was a disaster when I was an intern, and that would have been very helpful for me.

  3. Great ideas/resource Abby!The DC Public Library offers their summer teen workers something similar to number 2. I can't recall the details, but the program is something something akin to being taken out to lunch by a working professional in a field of their choosing during the course of the summer.

  4. What about passion? Many young folks new to the political world are full of it, and if you can sell an intern on your mission, there's very little s/he won't do for you. Maybe I'm just a starry-eyed writer, but the idea of working to stop child poverty appeals to me much more than working to do research analysis of economic trends. Not saying you need zealots, but in a sea of cubicles and monotony, many people want to at least believe that they'll somehow be making a difference, too.

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