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paid internsCollege students are preparing for graduation earlier than ever. With the prospect of entering a difficult job market looming over their heads, they know that the more experience on their resumes, the better. In order to gain this experience, most students take on internships where they have an opportunity to learn more about the professional world and define their post-graduation career path. Internships can be great preparation for the real world, but there are several major problems associated with interning, and those flaws are especially apparent in the nonprofit sector.

Unpaid internships are commonplace across all industries, but they’re especially prevalent in the nonprofit world. For students who are responsible for their own living expenses or who are struggling to minimize their student debt, unpaid internships can be particularly problematic. These students need an internship to get a job, but may simply be unable to afford working for no pay. It’s a vicious cycle that keeps scores of altruistic, ambitious young people from pursuing a career in the nonprofit sector and pushes them toward other industries where paid internships or entry-level jobs are more accessible.

If the nonprofit sector hopes to attract the best and brightest young talent, we need to recognize that paid internships are a good investment for nonprofit organizations. Here’s why:

REASON #1: Paid Internships Send the Right Message that the Nonprofit Sector is Willing to Invest in Talent

Some students have families that can afford to help them out during college so they can take unpaid internships without having to worry about making room for a part-time job. Most students rely heavily on internships to defray the very real costs of food, rent or bills and cannot afford, without a lot of sacrifice (think bike riding, sack lunches and sleeping on the couches of generous friends), to take an unpaid internship.

Nonprofits, like their for-profit counterparts, need talent to move their missions forward. And in order to get the best or even just better talent, that talent needs to be paid for. Somewhere in our budgets to fundraise, run programs and keep operations afloat, we should allocate the appropriate resources to hire the passion, energy and creativity that lives in the hearts and minds of college-age students. Doing so benefits the sector and the young people who are anxious to serve it. The mindset that paying for interns is unnecessary is just that: unnecessary. Wepay for what matters and talent in the nonprofit sector matters. If we don’t start building a pipeline of quality talent now, when will we?

REASON #2: Paid Internships Allow the Best Talent to Enter the Sector

Hiring managers in the nonprofit sector are interested in hiring well-qualified, experienced employees at every level, including entry-level. They want candidates who spent time interning and gaining experience in the nonprofit world both during and directly after college. This creates a barrier to entry for young people who are passionate about the sector, but cannot afford to take unpaid internships. As this Al Jazeera article noted, many young people feel that they have been priced out of activism by the necessity of taking an unpaid internship (or several) in order to find work in the nonprofit sector. Failing to pay interns eliminates an entire group of young candidates from our hiring pools, and often, those candidates are the ones who are most passionate about working in the sector. Paying our interns makes it possible for nonprofit work to be equally accessible and allows us to attract the best candidates to the sector.

REASON #3: Paid Internships Help us Stay Competitive

When you are faced with a job offer, are you going to take the paid job, or the unpaid job? This is not a difficult question for most. Regardless of your passions, everyone has to pay their bills and eat. Students are applying for all sorts of internships to gain professional experience, and when faced with the “paid v. unpaid” dilemma, students are likely to run toward the paid option. That option may be at another nonprofit, but often, it’s outside of the sector, and once a young person moves away from ambitions of entering the nonprofit sector, they may never return.

We can’t afford to lose the students who are passionate about social impact. We need to change our thinking, and begin viewing paid internships as an investment in helping the best and brightest young people enter the nonprofit sector and strengthen our organizations. They are the future of our sector, and the future of our country. Let’s offer more paid internships in the nonprofit sector so we can help them help us.

Lisa Brown Morton Bio: Lisa is the President and CEO of Nonprofit HR. Under her direction, Nonprofit HR has served some of the most prominent organizations in the country, including Amnesty International, Greenpeace, Goodwill Industries, ASAE and Rebuilding Together. With more than 25 years of human resource management experience working with nonprofits and for-profit organizations, Lisa and her firm have proven that better HR can play an integral role in nonprofit success. Nonprofits have benefited from her wealth of knowledge and experience to make their people-driven initiatives successful. She believes if an organization can strengthen its internal HR capacity, it can better serve the community and those in need. Lisa brings these beliefs to every engagement and inspires nonprofit leaders to strengthen their most important asset: their people.
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