Experiences, Unpaid Internships

My Unpaid Internships

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by Lauren Baldwin

My first experience working as an unpaid intern was the summer before my junior year in undergrad.

It was a five month, twenty hour per week commitment working on a cause-related fundraising event. I had a massive commute and the responsibilities of a full-time student. As there was an “all-hands on deck” mentality, I got autonomy and responsibility from day one. Interns were heavily relied upon to make the event a success.

I had a supervisor who really listened to my interests and needs and the whole team shared “bitch work” like cold calling. I felt lucky to have a great first intern experience.

Because of a paid position I held in my university’s fundraising department after that internship, I gained database management skills – something nearly all nonprofits utilize. This gave me the chops to nab internship #2.

I recommend looking for jobs seemingly unrelated to your exact field/ideal role/dream org but that can be applied broadly: database management, research, event planning, customer service etc… Having practical skills that someone who spent all their time “getting experience abroad” or volunteering might not have can be a huge asset

My second internship was stateside at a small, young NGO that installed water catchment systems in the global south. I was tasked with researching and pitching donor database software, assisting in the decision/strategic recommendation process, and then carrying out the implementation/data transfer. Again, I had a supervisor who gave me autonomy quite quickly.

Remember, newer/smaller orgs and offices are more likely to really need you, and you can self-start your way into meaningful impact. Alternatively, the event I first interned for had been in existence 20+ years so their internship program had had its kinks ironed out.

There’s no tried and true answer – just feel out what the organizational structure is like and how interns are utilized and how well that pairs with what you are hoping to learn or gain.

My last undergraduate internship experience was, unfortunately, the least fulfilling.

I worked for a nonprofit media/advocacy organization. My supervisor was extremely out of touch and unavailable, and there were far too many interns for the amount of work. The only positive from this experience was the networking and connections I gained – something I took into consideration before applying. My contacts there have served me well and are inspirational, smart people I benefit from on a relational and professional level to this day. If you have your doubts, but can see pros within an organization’s internship program (i.e. influential and connected leaders), maybe suck it up to get that person in your corner.

I now, before even applying to orgs, always seek out Skype dates, informational emails, etc with current or former staff or friends of friends.

The Internet is mostly kind and willing to help – utilize it. Most people in development had a non-linear path, filled with doubt and stretches of being completely broke. So they’re willing to help. I go to conferences such as Harvard’s International Development Conference (grad student run) when I can. I email PhDs and practitioners whose writing/career/blog/work I admire.

My big stint abroad, “cutting my teeth” in development , was at a human rights legal organization with (at the time) eighteen field offices. I knew I wanted to work abroad after school, and a paycheck wasn’t the biggest deal breaker.

This opened up lots of options; if I had limited myself to paid work it likely would have never happened for me.

This org was the first on my list I made – just because its application were due the sooner than the others. Once that ball got rolling, I was offered a position in their newest, most rural office. I was able to thrive in this location – something I truly didn’t know until it happened. You can never know, you just hope your self-assessment is accurate!

I was the Executive Assistant to both a national director and expat director (due to a leadership transition halfway through my time) in Uganda. I actually extended my time 6 months, for many reasons, but mainly in order to have a good-looking chunk of time on my CV (eighteen months total). This org’s internship program did a good job of giving the interns real work – I had a 9-5 schedule, set vacation days, etc. There was a standard to which I was held, performance reviews, access to professional development resources, etc. I had many other friends in my small town frustrated with their “jobs” because of massive lack of structure – you can only self-start so much.

This position was completely self-funded, down to the last penny. I was able to fundraise, mostly through my own network (which is an advantage undoubtedly – having a network that can write checks) – family, friends, friends of friends, – and kept a blog throughout. I didn’t have every dollar raised before departing and just kept plugging along. Through practising the discipline of blogging though I’ve gained a deeper appreciation and value for my international support system and all the people interested/willing to come alongside me.

While I am definitely not a fan of unpaid internships and don’t think they’re fair – it is the current system.

In order to gain experience and contacts in my desired field I did not really see a way around it. Because it was my choice, I committed to keeping a positive attitude. I frame my whole career’s emphasis (at this point in my mid-twenties) on learning and growth. I will not always get paid for my time or get an immediate monetary reward. But over time there will be benefits to reap.

My current job is a direct example – my experience, time and network in Uganda enabled me to get a paid position doing what I want to do. Even my first internship with that fundraising event enabled me to get a job in between my Uganda gigs when I was resigned to wait tables or bartend due to a desire for a temporary commitment.

Unpaid internships are the current lay of the land. Rather than spend energy and time resisting, I tried my best to make it work for me and gain the experience (especially getting a head start while still in undergrad) that gave me a workaround for that strange stipulation of an entry level job that requires two years’ experience, which we are all too-familiar with.

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