An internship is a structured immersion in the world of work. Whether paid or unpaid, an internship typically involves a combination of supervised project work and professional development components.
Although internships may not lead to a job offer, intentional, well-designed internships are a great chance to show your value to a potential employer.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor guidelines, internships should be educational, and more beneficial for the intern than the organization.
Interns typically have a specific task, activity, or project to work on within an organization over a set period of time, all of which should be clearly defined from the beginning.
Internship descriptions allow you to identify the skills you want to contribute to an organization, and help you make sure that you are maximizing your interning time.
Additionally, "internship" has a more professional connotation than volunteering (which makes sense as the word is borrowed from the business world), which helps internships stand out on your resume.
If you are at a place in your career where you are uncomfortable with using the word "intern" to describe your experience, see if your manager or supervisor would be willing to agree on another title for your work with the organization. Titles such as "assistant," "fellow," or "researcher" may be more useful instead.
You can use the same tools to search for an internship that you use for a volunteer or paid employment search: use your network to learn about opportunities, research locations of organizations, attend a nonprofit career fair, and conduct online searches.
Idealist.org has over 5,000 U.S.-based and international internships opportunities.
Many nonprofits list their internships on their own websites, and with colleges and universities; the career service office of your undergraduate or graduate program is a great place to start.
You may also consider approaching an organization that interests you and asking to create your own intentional internship. This gives you the opportunity to explore one of the lenses—issue, organization, role, or system (see the Four Lens Framework in Chapter Three)—in a way that is specifically catered to your interests and aspirations.
An all-too-common reality of internships is that you end up giving a lot more to the organization than you get in return. At the onset, be clear that you are excited about giving your time and energy to their cause and that you're also enthusiastic about gaining new skills and expertise through the experience. In other words, find out how the organization plans to help you hone preexisting skills in a nonprofit context or to develop new skills that you need to further your nonprofit career goals.
You would never take a job without knowing the benefits, and an internship should be no different. Interns deserve to get something in return for their dedication and this is best accomplished by advocating for yourself from the start.
Along with the opportunity to build your skill set in a nonprofit organization, there are several other ways to make sure you get the most out of your experience: