When you host an unpaid internship, a unicorn is very, very sad*

[Image description: Two hands resting on a laptop keyboard, as if they’re typing. The laptop is on a wooden table. The laptop screen displays a list of file and what looks like an open chat screen. There is a phone on the left of the laptop and a black to-go coffee cup on the right. Around the table are blurred torsos and hands of other people. Gosh, this is so much less interesting than trying to describe a baby animal. I miss baby animals. Image from Pixabay.com]
Hi everyone. There has been a lot of conversation lately about unpaid internships, and colleagues have asked me to weigh in. OK, I guess I will have to save “10 Summery Cocktails Inspired by Nonprofit Work” for another week, because this is an important topic.

While our sector works to end inequity, we still adopt many practices, often from the for-profit sector, that perpetuate the very injustice we are fighting. Whenever we engage in these things that run counter to our values, it makes unicorns, the symbol of our sector, sad, and bad things happen to them. When we don’t disclose salary range on a job posting, for example, they lose their wings. And when we use the horrible and unethical practice of basing pay on salary history, they lose their horn.

Well, whenever you host an unpaid internship, a unicorn is…very sad*. I know that most of our organizations have budget constraints. Many of us also take time to create extremely meaningful learning experiences for our unpaid interns. I also know that unpaid internships have been important stepping stones to successful careers for some of us and the interns we host. I had two unpaid practicum experiences, a requirement for my MSW. They were both horrible, but they were also helpful for my education (they taught me mainly what NOT to do as a nonprofit leader), so I don’t necessarily think that unpaid internships never have any merit.

However, our sector’s overarching mission is to fight systemic injustice, so we must seek to end the practices that run counter to this mission. Here are several reasons we as a sector need to avoid unpaid internships, and phase out the existing ones. Thank you to colleagues for contributing to these points below:

They leave behind low-income people and others from marginalized communities: You can only work for free somewhere for several months if you have the money stored or if your parents help with the rent or food or if you take on additional work that is paid so you can eat. This leaves behind low-income people, who are disproportionately people of color, people with disabilities, and LGBTQIA folks. Many people of color not only have to support themselves, but they often have to simultaneously support their families. A lot of LGBTQIA folks are abandoned by their families, so they’re not able to get the financial support they need to take on an unpaid position. People with disabilities are heavily discriminated against in terms of employment, so they’re less likely have a paid job that would supplement their unpaid internship. Taking on unpaid internships becomes a luxury that many simply cannot afford.

They privilege those who are already privileged: At their most effective, internships provide skills, experience, a resume boost, and professional connections. But if the majority of people who can afford to accept unpaid internships are from higher-income families, then this further privileges them, which allows the perpetuation of inequity in society. Not that we shouldn’t provide more-privileged colleagues with opportunities, but this is the nonprofit sector, and our focus must be on the people and communities most affected by inequity.

They might be harmful to the interns: To somewhat contradict the point above, unpaid internships might actually be harmful. According to this article that references a research study, students who had unpaid internships had basically the same hiring rates as those who didn’t have any internships at all. And even worse, Those with unpaid internships tended to take lower-paying jobs than those with no internship experience whatsoever ($35,721 and $37,087, respectively). Students with paid internships far outpaced their peers with an average $51,930 salary.” Of course, this study does not focus on the nonprofit sector, so take that with a swig of Pepto. So in summary, unpaid internships might be useless or harmful, and if they work, they might just privilege richer people.

They further the undervaluing and underpaying of professionals in our sector: Unpaid internships at their worst are just ploys to get free labor. If we can get an “intern” to do graphic design or communication or development or janitorial or administrative work for free, it limits the need to think about growth and build things into the budget and ask funders and donors to pay for these positions. Just like trying to decrease “overhead” leads to undervaluing of and underinvestment in critical functions like financial management and professional development, relying on unpaid interns lead to sector-wide undervaluing of and underinvestment in positions that should be paid.

They are legally risky and could get your org in a lot of trouble. A bunch of companies are getting embroiled in class-action lawsuits or other legal trouble for hiring unpaid interns. This is because many companies do not realize that there are Department of Labor rules you generally have to follow to make unpaid internships legal. One of those rules is that the unpaid intern’s work cannot displace the work that would otherwise be done by paid staff, aka a ploy for free labor. And unfortunately, our sector often falls into this trap, due to the constant scrambling for resources. Here’s a three-minute video of Adam Ruins Everything explaining why most unpaid internships are actually illegal, and demonstrating how it’s so easy for all of us to rationalize how these internships are so good for the interns when they’re not.

For these and other reasons, we need to stop offering unpaid internships. If you are currently offering unpaid internships, don’t feel too bad. Likely, you are not intentionally trying to perpetuate inequity. But this practice is increasing considered counter to nonprofit values and unethical, so it is time for our sector to take a stand and start phasing it out completely. Here are things we should do:

If you have unpaid internships, plan an exit strategy: First, determine if they’re even legal. If they are not (and a lot of them are not, according to the Department of Labor rules linked above), end them immediately. If you’re pretty sure they’re legal, start thinking of ways to transition them into paid internships. Maybe start with stipends while you seek funding. Try to make the stipends significant, like $2500 per quarter. I remember getting $500 for 600 hours’ work at one of my MSW practica, or approximately 83 cents per hour; that was a rough year, where I subsisted on a lot of pasta and ramen and dented canned goods in the clearance bins. And I was one of the lucky kids. (Make sure you read up on your state’s laws regarding stipends, though)

Incorporate paid positions into your budget: I know it can be daunting to plan for a full-time communication associate or development coordinator when you just don’t have the funds for it, but it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we don’t put into the budget, then we do not intentionally seek funding for it. The budget is a picture of what organizations value and prioritize making happen, so if you want paid staff, start planning for it.

Funders, provide funding for staffing: Nonprofits are unconsciously trained to avoid paying staff, or to pay staff as little as possible, because many funders are still reluctant to pay for salaries and wages. If you work for one of these foundations, please let your team know that this outdated philosophy is perpetuating the inequity we as a sector are trying to address. Provide unrestricted funding so nonprofits can hire the staff we need to fulfill our missions and not have to get into shady practices like asking people to work for free.

Become a work-study site: Many universities will subsidize payments to students who qualify for the federal work-study program, so that organizations only pay a portion—usually about 30%–of the student’s wages. This often translates to a decent pay for students while being affordable to organizations. As someone who personally benefited from work-study, I really appreciate this program. It can be a little tedious with the paperwork and other requirements, but is much more equitable than unpaid internships.

Provide feedback when you see unpaid internships advertised: We have made tremendous progress in getting people to disclose salary ranges because often when someone posts a position without the range, people will email the hiring lead to ask them to reconsider. I flatly say that I have a hard rule not to help spread the word on any position unless the salary range is transparent. Let’s do the same for unpaid internships. Whenever you see one being advertised, write back a courteous email explaining that it is inequitable.

Put pressure on schools that refuse to give academic credits to students unless their internship is unpaid: Students are basically paying their schools for a chance to work at internships and practicums. Some schools allow a portion of the tuition to be reimbursed to the students as wages for working at these practical learning opportunities. Others, however, have a weird view that because students are paying for the internship, they shouldn’t get compensated by the host sites for it. That’s inequitable; they’re going to be stuck with student loans because of the tuition they need to pay to do the internships, which takes up time that they could be using to earn money at a regular job; we should be allowed to help out when possible. Equity requires to challenge rules like this.

Add your thoughts in the comment section. 

I know it can be tough to give up hosting unpaid internships. Even the organizations I’ve led have relied on unpaid interns and practicum students. It is a mindset and a practice that might take us a little bit of time to adjust to, so let’s give ourselves some grace. But let’s work to ensure everyone in our sector is equitably compensated as they work to make the world better. Unicorns everywhere appreciate it. 

*Original title was “When you host an unpaid internship, a unicorn loses a pancreas.” This was insensitive, so I changed it. My apologies. 

Be a monthly patron of NAF and keep posts like this coming. 

Donate to Vu’s organization

Write an anonymous review of a foundation on GrantAdvisor.org