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For interns at nonprofits, don’t expect a paycheck

Former interns are challenging unpaid internships in court, but at nonprofits, the programs are particularly widespread

After college, Prisca Edwards moved to New York City and accepted an unpaid internship with a nonprofit devoted to economic and social-justice issues. She was able to stay with a family friend to save money but watched her fellow interns work late-night restaurant jobs to make ends meet, then show up exhausted at work the next morning.

“I chose to go into nonprofit work, and I really believed in the organization’s mission,” says Edwards, 24. “But it was hard to see peers in different fields making money from internships. It made me think, ‘What am I doing?’”

Unpaid internships are more common at nonprofits than at other type of organizations: 57 percent of internships at nonprofits are unpaid, compared with 48 percent of internships in government and 34 percent at for-profit businesses, according to a 2010 study. These internships can provide valuable training, mentorship and a leg up on future job openings. But many young people and some charity officials say that because nonprofits are often unwilling to hire candidates without significant internship experience, the field is being increasingly closed off to those who can’t work without pay.

Legal challenges to unpaid internships have thrown the programs under greater scrutiny. A judge recently found in favor of former interns who sued Fox Searchlight Pictures, saying the company required them to do menial work and failed to provide the sorts of educational opportunities that exempt unpaid internships from federal minimum-wage laws. Lawsuits against Hearst and other businesses are pending, and similar legal challenges have ended in settlements that involved the payment of back wages.

But nonprofits’ legal status affords them more leeway. The Department of Labor permits volunteer work at nonprofits, and charitable organizations are permitted to classify interns as either volunteers or employees. As laid out in opinion letters issued by the agency, however, charities cannot require unpaid interns classified as volunteers to do the work of paid staff or do anything but the tasks traditionally intended for volunteers.

Ross Perlin, author of “Intern Nation,” says this privilege is often abused. “It’s clear that some nonprofits are prepared to blur the distinction and hide behind their ability to have volunteers as a way of using unpaid interns,” he said. He notes that unpaid internships at nonprofits frequently require set hours and that the work of interns often resembles that of paid employees. “In my research I’ve come across nonprofits that were really pushing the envelope and likely breaking the law with their unpaid internships.”

Once Edwards completed her internship, the organization hired her as a paid consultant to do much the same work she had been doing as an unpaid intern. She says her internship helped her gain valuable video-editing skills and a foot in the door of the nonprofit world. She recognizes, though, that without housing through a family friend, she wouldn’t have been able to accept the internship, a step she saw as key to helping her secure a job with a nonprofit.

“I don’t think it would’ve been possible for me to find work in the video-editing or nonprofit-photography field without an internship first,” says Edwards. “Most businesses want three to five years of experience before hiring for even an entry-level or assistant position.”

Perlin argues that unpaid internships perpetuate the very inequalities many nonprofits seek to rectify. “In their outward focus on doing good in the world, many nonprofits are losing sight of their own practices — and the old idea that charity begins at home,” he says. “The nonprofit sector risks being discredited as a reliable and representative voice if it lacks diversity. And requiring people to work unpaid to get into the field clearly has negative effects on diversity.”

Prisca Edwards
Prisca Edwards.

By the time Cortney Harding graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in women’s studies, eager to begin a career with nonprofit feminist organizations, she had held seven unpaid internships. “I had done tons of free work, and I really wanted to make a go at being a professional feminist,” she recalls. But when she began to look for paid work, she says, leaders of several organizations encouraged her to keep applying for unpaid internships instead.

Her parents are both public-school educators and couldn’t continue to support her. Harding says that out of financial necessity, she pursued employment in the for-profit sector; she currently works for a music start-up. “The experience really left a very sour taste in my mouth,” says Harding, now 34. “I felt like I’d been priced out of activism.”

Budgets at nonprofits tend to be tight, and most organizations are still struggling to recover from the Great Recession. Many nonprofit employees argue that they simply don’t have the money to pay interns. If they had to pay their interns, some nonprofit officials say, they would not be able to offer internships at all.

“It’s really frustrating that we can’t afford to pay interns,” says Ben Palmquist, who helps run the Right to Work with Dignity program at the nonprofit National Economic and Social Rights Initiative. “But the question becomes, are we just not going to have internships? That’s not a solution that works for anyone.”

Others say it would be a shame if increased scrutiny leads some groups to end their internship programs. “Many young people neither need nor want an advocate on this issue,” says Michael Moroney, director of public affairs at the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, who has written in praise of unpaid internships. “If you don’t believe in unpaid internships, don’t take one. But please don’t ruin it for the rest of the young adults that would be happy to build their resume and learn new skills.”

Meanwhile, some organizations are taking creative steps to raise funds for paid internships. When The Nation, the magazine and website associated with the nonprofit media organization The Nation Institute, published an article lamenting the lack of diversity in journalism, its interns wrote a letter to the editor. “Our five months as fact checkers were an invaluable learning experience, nurturing us intellectually, professionally and socially,” they wrote. “Yet to participate in the program, an intern must work full time for a $150 weekly stipend, an impossible prospect for many who are underrepresented in today’s media.”

The magazine published the letter and committed to raising interns’ pay. Among other efforts, The Nation Institute hosted a fundraising event for its internship program last September, encouraging former interns to donate. Alyssa Katz, a writer, an editor and a former Nation intern, was one of the attendees. She says, “I think everyone in the room appreciated the difficult balancing act between paying interns who provide valuable labor and the need of thought publications to spend as little as possible on staffing, and personally I’m glad that they are starting to ask us to pitch in.”

This kind of fundraising is a step in the right direction, says Eric Glatt, one of the plaintiffs who sued Fox Searchlight over an unpaid internship working on the film “Black Swan.” He hopes to see more nonprofits include paid internships among their fundraising goals, saying, “If they don’t put it in the budget, they’ll never raise the money.” 

So far, The Nation Institute remains more the exception than the rule. And former interns like Harding say they find it unsettling to imagine a future in which nonprofits are made up largely of employees who once had the means to work for free. “It’s really untenable to think that the only people who can be professional activists are people with wealthy parents or personal wealth,” she says. “That’s really kind of dangerous.”

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