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.”