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Internships are a great way to explore career options while developing your skills through hands-on experience with social-impact organizations.

While landing that first internship can be a challenge, it’s certainly not impossible. After all, we all have to start somewhere, right?

If you’re a current student or a recent graduate, there are plenty of ways to find your perfect internship and begin your social-impact career.

Start small

An internship at a big-name organization can often feel like the only way to make your resume stand out for a future employer, but there are so many options out there; all you have to do is look! Internships at smaller or lesser-known nonprofits can be just as valuable as experience with a household name.

At a smaller organization, you may have an opportunity to get involved in a wider variety of projects due to a lean workforce, and there’s a good chance that you won’t have to deal with the same amount of red tape as you may find at a larger nonprofit.

As an intern, you may be given more responsibility as well as freedom to pitch the projects that interest you most. If there’s a need that clearly exists but is not being met due to a lack of resources, you may be given an opportunity to tackle that problem with some level of autonomy.

Narrow down

No two social-impact organizations are alike, and even those with a similar mission will operate in completely different ways. Determining the specific characteristics of the type of organization you’d like to work for and the type of positions you’re most interested in can streamline the search.

If you’re a student, you may not know exactly what you want to do with your career, and that’s okay! To start exploring what you’d like to focus on, grab a pen and paper and create two columns. In column one, ask yourself specific questions about what makes you happy (professionally and/or academically speaking). In column two, answer those questions—the more detailed, the better.

Some questions you might ask yourself include:

  • What classes have I enjoyed the most? If you’ve always preferred science classes to English classes, then you might be better suited for an internship focused on scientific research or technological development than communications or PR.
  • What activities or hobbies make me feel happy and fulfilled? Even hobbies that appear professionally irrelevant can give you guidance—if you’re a regular Dungeons and Dragons player, try looking for tech nonprofits with a more social and creative focus. If you spend most of your free time gardening or hiking, consider a role at an organization that advocates for the environment or wildlife protection.
  • Are there any causes I’m particularly passionate about? There’s an organization out there for every cause. Spend some time on Idealist and see which organizations focus on the things you're passionate about.
  • What do I definitely not want to do? If spending several hours a week digging through code for an app or website sounds like your worst nightmare, then you already know to avoid positions where that’s the main focus. Don't be afraid to admit to yourself (in detail!) the things that you don't enjoy doing.

Each of these questions can help you narrow down which internship opportunities and organizations are the best fit for your experience, interests, and personality.

Beef up your resume

If you’re struggling in your search because you feel like your resume is a bit sparse, we have plenty of tips on how to flesh it out right here on Idealist Career Advice. There are many ways to develop skills on your own time or translate seemingly unrelated activities into meaningful experience.

  • Roles in student clubs or groups can showcase your ability to work collaboratively in order to meet project goals—and according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, “problem-solving skills” and “ability to work on a team” are tied for the number one most common attribute employers seek on a job applicant’s resume.
  • Volunteer experience is another rewarding addition to your resume. Not only will it give you valuable real-world experience in teamwork and problem solving, it will also demonstrate your passion for social impact and civic engagement.
  • “Insignificant” hobbies or activities can actually be overlooked sources of crucial skill development. For instance, instead of writing off your Twitter and Instagram use as a waste of time, consider reframing it as “knowledge of multiple social media platforms.”
  • Previous jobs that aren’t obviously relevant to your chosen social-impact path can also illustrate some skills hiring managers see as valuable. For example, that part-time job in retail or food service you had in high school may point to your work ethic and customer-service skills.

The most important takeaway here: never write off any experience without critically examining it first.

Be confident

The reality is that nobody ever fits a job description perfectly, and hiring managers understand that intern applicants are often students without much career experience. Rather than worrying about whether or not you meet every need and requirement outlined in the description, be clear and positive.

  • The wording in your application materials matters. For example, a statement such as “I am deeply passionate about [CAUSE/FOCUS] and am always seeking new opportunities to broaden my experience,” can clearly, concisely, and effectively demonstrate your capacity for growth.
  • Don’t focus on your lack of experience. Instead, emphasize the skills you already have. It’s okay to acknowledge that you don’t have much specific experience, but move on quickly—too much of a focus will just make you seem unqualified.
  • Convey confidence in your actions. If you get an interview, sit tall, speak clearly, and demonstrate your enthusiasm (even if you’re nervous on the inside). If you know exactly what and where you’d like to work, you can try reaching out directly to a member of that team about designing your own dream internship.

And finally, remember that the worst thing that anyone can tell you is “no.” Although rejection can be disappointing, there will always be another opportunity.

Use the resources you already have

If you’re in school, you probably have access to a career center. Career centers are helpful because their entire purpose is to help students find—and land—jobs and internships. Career services typically:

  • Work directly with employers to match students with internship and job openings that best suit them.
  • Offer tips or workshops for students looking to polish their resume and cover letter.
  • Maintain a network of alumni who are willing to speak with, or even offer positions to, current students.

You can also always network with individuals in your social circle who have career aspirations similar to your own in order to develop professional connections and get insider tips. If you have a friend who has already interned at a social-impact organization, ask what her organization typically looks for in an intern.

Some questions you might ask include:

  • What kind of experience or skills do they seek? This allows you to both emphasize the relevant skills you already have, as well as work on expanding your skill set and experience in the future. For instance, if the internship includes managing a website and you’ve never worked with Wordpress before, a good place to start is by finding a free online tutorial or YouTube video to walk you through the basics.
  • Who is the best person in the organization for me to contact about an internship? If your friend is comfortable with it (and has a good reputation at the organization), you can ask her to make a connection between you and the hiring manager.
  • What is the application process like? The application process is different for every organization, and doing your research will give you more time to prepare yourself and your materials. If your friend had to submit a writing sample for her role, chances are you will, too—and having that information in advance will let you carefully select and edit your best work ahead of time.
  • What assignments were you given? Maybe you’ve never had a social-impact internship before—but you may very well have already worked on a project similar to what they’d ask of you. If your friend was asked to write frequently, emphasize your writing skills and papers you’ve written for class; if she was often involved in collaborative projects, play up your experience working in groups at school and other activities.

And of course, blogs like Idealist Career Advice provide free guidance on the job search for people at all stages in their social-impact career.


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Anjelica Davis profile image

Anjelica Davis

My passion is the intersection of communications and policy—particularly how social media and other forms of digital connection can translate into tangible advocacy and systemic change—with a specific focus on nonprofit and public sector communications.

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