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The Idealist Case Study on Internship Programs

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How Partnership for Public Service Creates a Future Staff Pipeline and Meaningful Experiences for Interns

In the nonprofit sector, internships come in many forms. From smaller-scale hiring meeting immediate organizational needs to full-fledged programs complete with dedicated staff, internships in our sector are anything but one-size-fits-all. 

And while the needs, expectations, and requirements for an internship will vary from organization to organization, we wanted to share the internship program model and some additional resources from Partnership for Public Service (which you’ll see referred to as “the Partnership” from here on out).

In their decades-long mission to restore pride in government service and attract the country’s most talented, intelligent, and committed workers to serve the American people, the Partnership has also successfully developed and honed an impressive model for recruiting and retaining superstar interns. Launched as the Public Service Fellowship, the Public Service Internship—as it is now known—can be found on the resumes of nearly 20% of Partnership staff.

While this resource offers a deep dive on the Partnership’s internship program, we encourage you to take time and consider how these practices may be applied to your own organization, either immediately or in the future. And although it goes without saying, we’ll say it anyway: an internship program is not only a great way to welcome passionate, early-career social-impact professionals to your team, but also a valuable opportunity for an intern to learn and grow.

Case study table of contents:

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Determining specific team needs and intern assignments

Prior to the start of recruitment, Senior Operations Manager Emily Holby solicits input and work requests from each team or department at the organization, and then carefully maps out all of the information in a spreadsheet. Here are the details that inform their intern recruitment:

  • Specific project details as provided by individual teams
  • Estimated hours of support per week needed from a prospective intern
  • Examples of the types of things that an intern would be working on to support the project
  • Key dates that an intern must be available in order fill this particular need 

With this information in hand, Emily is able to sort needs by team, count total number of intern hours being requested, and ultimately land on a final number of interns she’d like to recruit for the upcoming season’s cohort.

Next, Emily will start developing individual portfolios for each intern spot that she plans to fill. Ideally, an intern portfolio will include between 30-32 hours of work for somebody who will be filling a full-time internship position, with the remaining 10 hours reserved for other projects and professional development opportunities.

Pro tip: It’s surprisingly common for an employer to bring on interns without having a full understanding of how they’ll spend their time. While it may sound like a lot of work (because it is!), creating a detailed plan for how interns will spend their day on the job will save you time in the long run and go a long way toward intern satisfaction

Try it out: Looking for a simple spreadsheet to help you map out intern/staffing needs? Try ours! 

Recruitment

Each term—three to four-month periods aligning closely with academic calendars—the Partnership team recruits and hires approximately 20 paid interns. 

At the Partnership, as at Idealist, paying interns is a foundational component of efforts toward equity and access. The practice of offering unpaid internships may unfairly advantage people who can afford to provide their time and labor for free, thereby excluding those who cannot. Compensating interns brings in more candidates of diverse backgrounds and may ultimately broaden the talent pipeline into our sector. 

Recruitment at The Partnership—carried out via Idealist and Handshake—starts with a description that includes all of the typical sections of any full-time job description plus some additional details. Because the Partnership team wants their postings to be shared by campus career services offices across the country, they also have to meet specific criteria for what those offices require in a description.

Here are examples of what additional details a career services office may request:

  • Intended learning outcomes
  • Specifics on what skills the intern will be gaining from the internship
  • Number of anticipated hours per week
  • Details around how the intern will be supported and supervised 

Pro tip: Keep in mind that if there is a possibility of academic credit, schools may require the hiring organization to complete paperwork for the intern. 

Try it out: Check out our internship listing template for a more detailed look at what should be included in your listing.  

As the application deadline approaches, there’s also plenty happening behind the scenes to prepare for next steps in the process. In their intern season kick-off meetings, team representatives and intern hiring managers gather to run through the hiring process and discuss things like timeline, best practices for screening and interviewing, and implicit bias. 

Another important topic covered is expectation setting on behalf of the organization. The team at the Partnership feels it is in a unique position to provide opportunities. It’s not about hiring the applicant with the most prestigious resume, but rather about giving an applicant with promise an opportunity to get their first official “real world work” (or professional or career development) experience. 

Once the team is ready to begin interviews, even more best practices and efficiencies are implemented:

  • At least two people sit in on every interview. This helps to cut down on implicit bias.
  • Intern-level interviews are done over the phone or video for the sake of efficiency. It’s critical in terms of equity and accessibility that all first-round interviews use the same method of communication.  
  • Every team is given a standard set of interview questions based on key competencies and interviewers are asked to rate interviewees from 1-5 on each.
  • All applicants (even those who aren’t moving forward in the process) get an email response, and teams are encouraged to let applicants know as soon as they are out of the running.
  • Clarity and specificity are encouraged when discussing scheduling and availability with intern interviewees. Availability must align with the needs of the organization.

Pro tip: The Partnership has a policy that requires a minimum of 20 hours per week for interns. Over the years, the team at the Partnership has observed (via survey feedback) that those interns who work the fewest hours report a less-valuable experience compared to other members of their cohort working more hours. Specifically, those interns report not feeling as much of a true member of the team; also, fewer hours can limit the amount of more in-depth work they can take on—so more hours often results in interns feeling that their work has more impact. 

Try it out: If you’re looking for a starting point on how to professionally decline an applicant via email, try these email templates shared by the Partnership.

Program structure and professional development

The Public Service Internship program has many supporting parts and players. Here’s a closer look at some of the more integral and codified aspects of the program:

Intern Program Coordinators: The three Intern Coordinators—each from a different team and representing diversity in areas including gender, race/ethnicity, professional experience, and personality type on the introversion/extroversion spectrum—serve about one or one and half years in that position until they rotate out of the role.

Coordinators run the day-to-day of the intern program with oversight from Emily Holby. Some examples of the day-to-day include: managing intern onboarding processes, weekly meetings, professional development workshops, intern action learning projects (more about that below), and intern evaluation and program feedback databases. The coordinators are typically Associate Manager-level staff, which is one level up from an entry level Associate. Oftentimes, they have been through the program themselves and have a more intimate understanding of being on the other side of the table. There is usually somebody from HR involved as well so that coordinators aren’t on their own in navigating some of the more challenging pieces, such as ADA requests.

Intern Supervisors: According to Amiko Matsumoto, a longtime Partnership staff member, “Supervisors are selected based on their interest, capacity, and readiness.”

At the beginning of their term, each intern is matched with a supervisor on their own team or in their department. Interns and supervisors meet weekly in order to review work, challenges, questions, and to discuss any potential professional development opportunities. Supervisors also meet as a group convened by the intern coordinators on a monthly basis to discuss updates and challenges.

Buddies: Each intern is assigned a buddy—a full-time staff member who sits outside of their team. This is simply another person who’s there to answer questions about professional development, organizational culture, or anything an intern may not feel comfortable asking their supervisor or an intern program coordinator.

Learning Agreement: When an intern begins the onboarding process, they meet with their supervisor in order to draft a Learning Agreement. This is an opportunity for the intern and the supervisor to get on the same page about what the intern wants to gain from the experience, like specific skills or knowledge. The supervisors also include their own expectations and then both parties sign the document. And voilà, just like that, expectations have been set and agreed upon, and commitments have been made!

Coffee meeting culture: The Partnership team is big on networking and encourages interns to take advantage of any opportunities that arise during their term. Even as so many of us continue to work and intern in the virtual world, the Partnership intern supervisors, buddies, and coordinators are actively encouraging interns to “meet somebody for coffee” (even if it’s a quick Zoom without any actual coffee). Supervisors and buddies help interns figure out which members of the organization are a good fit for their particular interests, and the interns then request informational interviews. It’s also important to note that the Partnership staff are very generous in offering interns their time for a “coffee.”

Action Learning Project: Interns form teams with other members of their cohort and develop an idea that they think can improve the organization. At the end of the internship period, they present it to coordinators, supervisors, and other staff. A lot of these ideas are implemented by the organization. One example of an Action Learning Project that was implemented came from a team that developed recommendations on how the organization could improve efforts around sustainability and recycling in the office. 

Try it out: Here’s a look at the Learning Agreement template. This is a great tool for any new hire, intern or otherwise!

Pro Tip: Treat your interns as though they are a member of the full-time team. This means that unless there is sensitive information being discussed, you should seek to include interns in all meetings that are available to staff, including training sessions, retreats, team meetings, and brown bag lunches.

Measuring success

While the interns have their Learning Agreements and final Action Learning Project presentations as a measure of their success, the Partnership team is also interested in how successful they were at implementing a productive and engaging program. Here are some of the methods implemented to garner honest and regular feedback from interns:

  • Mid-term check-ins with interns includes the coordinators and HR staff going through a standard set of questions around the onboarding experience and the program so far.
  • An exit survey that provides useful feedback and data to inform how the program will look, and how it may shift and evolve for the next intern cohort.
  • Intern supervisors are asked a simple but important yes or no question: “If this intern comes back and applies for a position, should we consider hiring them?” Interns are also encouraged to share interest in any full-time Partnership job opportunities that become available.

Pro Tip: If you interview a former or current intern for an opportunity at your organization, be sure to let them know through a direct conversation if they won’t be progressing in the interview process, just like the Partnership does. This offers the intern—a contributing, albeit short-term member of your team—an opportunity for valuable feedback and suggestions for where they may be able to develop as a social-impact professional and as an interviewee.

Try it out: Here’s what’s included in the Partnership’s quick intern exit survey.

Speaking of success, here is what some of the the Partnership staff and former interns (and the staff who were former Partnership interns!) have to say about the program:

“The Action Learning Project was probably one of my favorite parts of the internship. You feel very independent and empowered. I felt like I learned a lot.” 

- Megan Powell, Human Resources and Operations Associate

“I think through the nature of the Partnership and the experience that interns have, they get to know people and stay in touch. I applied for my current job here because my former manager called me … I think a lot of people stay in touch with their supervisors.” - Emily Holby, Senior Operations Manager

“A lot of Action Learning Projects are actually implemented by the organization. We give a lot of value to different perspectives, and interns certainly see the organization through a different lens.” 

- Amiko Matsumoto, Senior Executive Coach and Facilitator 

Additional resources: