Internships are part and parcel of many higher education programs. They are hands-on learning opportunities: emphasis on learning. You can fill intern hours with things that barely check requirement boxes and get some envelopes stuffed, or you can give your interns a transformational opportunity. Putting in the effort to develop skilled professionals in the sector won’t only help your organization—and field—grow; it also results in the kind of marketing you can’t buy: word-of-mouth praise.
Follow these tips to give your interns the tools they need to advance in their careers. We promise they’ll thank you for it.
We’re all busy. If we had a bunch of free hours in the day, we wouldn’t need an intern! But it’s important to take the time to get organized before you bring on an intern: it doesn’t need to be perfect, just put in the effort. You want them to leave their first day feeling excited, energized, and engaged about the work they’ll be doing to support your mission. Consider:
- Having a desk space and computer set up for their use.
- Creating an organizational email for them.
- Providing at least a basic one-hour orientation to the organization, your staff, and office space.
- Asking for their bio for your website (and photo, if you have them for staff).
- Scheduling an official meeting to complete and sign their learning agreement within the first 10 days.
Listen, and give them a stretch project
Students each have their own learning goals and passion projects. The best way to get them engaged and off to the races from day one is to incorporate some of their particular topics of interest into their work plan for the semester. What do they hope to learn? What are they excited about? You should definitely have the answers to these questions by the time you’ve signed the learning agreement.
Consider larger, longer-term projects that you would love to see accomplished and yet do not have the people power to pull off. Think about stretch projects in terms of their resume: what would look interesting and impressive to a future nonprofit considering them for a position? How can you make the work that needs doing into a leadership development project?
The less glamorous work that has to get done—from processing the mail to printing thank-you letters—is more tolerable when it is balanced with work that clearly relates to the mission and feels impactful.
Life is about relationships! One of the best things nonprofits can do for interns is help them create genuine connections to other organizations and leaders in the community. If you have the capacity, it also helps to bring interns on as a cohort, even if there are just two of them. Having a peer builds the sense of community in the office, gives them someone to engage with when work is slow, and someone to buddy up with on bigger projects. Try:
- Bringing interns on as a cohort together.
- Arranging 1-2 “field trips” to visit partner agencies in the community so students can learn about other missions and meet people in the field.
- Taking interns to an important community meeting with you, even just to observe and absorb.
- Asking them to share what they’re working on during a staff meeting.
- Sending interns to community meetings and/or trainings at other nonprofit organizations.
- Connecting with interns on LinkedIn, and encouraging them to connect with other people they meet during their internship.
Involve them in the organization
What sets some internships apart is how engaged and part of the team an intern feels with their placement organization. “Just an intern” hopefully never crosses their lips!
You can include your intern in staff meetings, board and staff retreats, and other high-level planning. This helps them see the bigger picture of where the organization is going, and how the work they do supports that vision.
If you take the time to ensure your interns are more than just paper pushers, you’ll help your organization just as much as you help their resumes. Giving interns the chance to meaningfully engage in your work will have them telling fellow students and future organizations they engage with about what a great experience they had working with you.
Have some more tips for engaging interns? Share them with us on social media.
Ashley Fontaine is a writer, mental health professional, and former nonprofit executive director. She’s on a mission to eliminate “we’ve always done it that way” from our collective vocabulary by helping leaders focus on possibilities rather than limitations. She believes organizational culture is the key to productivity and staff retention.