Like many Vassar students, my dreams include working for a not-for-profit organization, applying my skills to a social cause I am passionate about. After working in a small, local nonprofit for three years, I had many realizations about what a nonprofit career would entail as well as the trends and issues facing the industry. As those who have experience in the nonprofit world, it truly is rewarding, but it is equally exhausting. I started off as an intern at my nonprofit (unpaid, of course,) and a year later became the volunteer coordinator, a position in which I was able to learn a great deal about volunteerism among countless other useful experiences. Now, as I am in the midst my first college internship search, I find myself reflecting on my time in that organization and my interactions with the unpaid interns while I was a paid staff member. While there are, of course, many other larger problems within this industry that need addressing, the issue of interns is one that is particularly relevant to the Vassar community.
One of the greatest issues that face nonprofit organizations is a financial one. It’s simply due to the fact that you have limited sources of income when you’re focusing less on your bottom line and more on your primary mission as a charitable organization. Unless it is large, national organization, a large part of the staff and volunteers’ time goes into finding ways to bring money in by planning fundraisers, applying for numerous grants, and searching for people to carry out these functions. However, unless there is a designated person for these tasks, they get diffused throughout the team and take up considerable time from the pursuit of the actual mission and causes of the organization. This problem often pervades all aspects of the organization, as there is often a small core staff that must handle every facet from volunteer recruitment and retention to outreach, event planning and marketing. If you ask any staff member at a small to mid-sized nonprofit about their job description, they will likely mention that while they do have a primary function, they wear many hats. Depending on the mission, all this can be difficult when there is also, on top of all these office tasks, work to be done out in the field. For this reason, nonprofits are always eager to receive as many volunteers and interns as possible to lift some of the burden without further straining their limited resources.
The difference that I noticed between the “volunteers,” those who came in and did different types of tasks because they cared about our mission or for a community service requirement, and “interns,” college (or sometimes high school) students who performed more focused tasks to gain experience in a specific field. Some of our interns, who came from the local state university a few miles away, worked with us as a part of federal work study, but most were unpaid as I had been. The volunteers, on the other hand, were mostly stay-at-home moms, retirees, and young professionals looking to join the board of directors. While both groups were interesting to work with, I noticed some patterns with those who came in as interns. During recruitment, all of these students seemed enthusiastic about working with our organization and had resumes that indicated their participation in numerous campus activities and leadership positions. However, after a few weeks of working, they often remarked that they did not really understand what the organization did or what its purpose in the community was. Volunteers, conversely, seemed knowledgeable about the basic function of the nonprofit and were passionate about it. The volunteers were also extremely punctual and showed great dedication to their work while they were there, while some interns had spotty attendance records and were prone to texting and zoning out. I learned that this was not just a problem in my organization, but in others of similar size and budget. Why would those who had a more clear-cut, educational purpose for working with an organization seem less motivated than those who did it just because they wanted to, I wondered, and how can nonprofits work to change this?
In looking into several non-profit internships, I notice a pattern that mine was guilty of: listing internships with unclear objectives and too-general descriptions of their missions. This differed from that of the volunteer, which laid out specific goals and allowed room for them to customize their experience. Being in the position of the intern-hopeful, I feel as though the organization is not sure itself of what I will be doing with them, and a broad description of the mission does not set it apart in my mind from the sea of others I have read. While life in the nonprofit world is hectic, I can sense this in just few lines of text, which leaves the applicant confused from the beginning. This is also an issue in the orientation process, which is extremely important in building the intern’s relationship with the organization. Unlike volunteers, interns may not come in with a definite passion for the organization’s mission, which can be used to the advantage of both parties. While the time of the staff members is indeed sparse, it is important that interns are properly oriented to the organization’s climate, values, and all the different aspects outside of that in which they will be working. Because some of this may seem abstract without physical results, especially in some social service nonprofits, a day or a few hours of shadowing in the field should be required in order to allow interns to connect with the mission in a more tangible way. When beginning work at a nonprofit, on the other hand, interns should be inquisitive about the diverse functions of the organization and recognize the pros and cons of the industry. Having an internship at a nonprofit is a two-way relationship, and by embracing this, both the nonprofit and intern can get the most out of it.
Working in the nonprofit community is a truly unique and rewarding experience, and by strengthening internship programs, they can inspire and educate college students in ways that only experience can provide. Later on, this can have numerous benefits, as the then-intern may pursue a nonprofit career because they had an excellent experience. This, finally, can serve to solve the pervasive issue of high-turnover rates due to the thought that nonprofit work is a “stepping-stone” in one’s career, not a permanent choice. Like in anything, building relationships in this industry is crucial, but especially so due to the significance of their work. Therefore, both interns and nonprofits must be aware that this occurs at the inception of one’s career, and changes must be made to nurture this unique aspect.
—Sophia Burns ’18 is a student at Vassar College.