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The Idealist Guide to Internship Programs | How to Hire, Train, and Manage Interns in the Social-Impact Sector

Illustration of a manager and an intern discussing ideas, schedules, and other work.
Illustration by Marian Blair

Idealist connects social-impact professionals worldwide with the information they need to turn their good intentions into action. With our community of 1.3 million monthly job seekers and over 133,000 social-impact organizations, we are the leading online resource for people seeking careers in the nonprofit sector—and we know the importance of meaningful and productive internships. A robust internship program doesn’t just provide support—it also helps to shape the future leaders of our sector. 

But the hiring process for interns can be a bit more complicated than that for standard employees. Your organization will not only need to consider compensation and work schedules; you must also be prepared to create an enriching internship experience.

This guide is a step-by-step companion to hiring and managing new interns. To make the process as clear as possible, we’ve broken our guide into five parts:

  1. The hiring process
  2. Compensation considerations
  3. Supervising and setting expectations
  4. From intern to full-time employee
  5. Managing an internship program
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A magnifying class with a check mark.

Part 1: The hiring process

Hiring an intern should be about more than finding someone to enter data into a spreadsheet, so you’ll want to think carefully about what you want to offer as well as what you want your potential hire to take away from the experience. All internships should have a good mix of experiences that allow interns to learn about your organization, improve understanding of the wider social-impact field, and establish connections to co-workers and others in the sector. 

REMOTE HIRING TIP: Has your workplace gone partly or fully remote? You may need to do some extra planning to determine how an intern fits into your newly remote workplace. Will you be able to provide an intern with adequate equipment to work from home? Do you have remote onboarding materials at the ready? Considering these questions should be your first step.

Writing the description

Once you’ve established the basics, you’ll need to write a description to post on Idealist and elsewhere. Here are some things to look out for:

  • Make sure you’re clear about your expectations for the role, including how many hours or specific days that the role requires.
  • Avoid “alphabet soup.” People new to the field might not be familiar with jargon or acronyms, so spell everything out.
  • Have a trusted colleague read the job description to ensure clarity.
  • Include a description of what interns can expect to get out of the experience. This might be participation in an important conference, credit for contributing to a major project, or a byline on a white paper. Remember, internships are supposed to be as beneficial, if not more so, to the intern as to the employer. 

TIP: Be sure to screen your job description for bias

We suggest identifying role requirements and role nice-to-haves, and then removing the nice-to-haves from your listing. As you may know, potential candidates may take themselves out of the running (especially BIPOC professionals, women, and other traditionally marginalized groups) if they have, for example, everything a listing asks for except for one thing that could be taught on the job. Your candidate pool may be larger, richer, and more diverse if you implement this tactic.

Interviewing candidates

You’ve found some talented and enthusiastic candidates—perhaps by using Idealist’s free Applicant Tracker—and now it’s time to start the interview and hiring process. Since interns may not have any on-the-job experience, your interview will be a bit different than if you were looking for a permanent hire. Here are some key questions to ask:

  • [If interviewing a current student] Describe the courses you’re taking. How do they relate to this position? Listen for their ability to make connections, as well as how they see this internship fitting into their longer-term career goals.
  • [If interviewing a current student] How has your extracurricular involvement prepared you for this internship? Planning campus events and participating in student government are valuable ways to develop professional skills. Learning more about these experiences also offers insight about your applicant beyond academics.
  • What skills are you looking to gain from this internship? Make sure their expectations align with yours, and consider any additional opportunities that may be a fit based on their interests.
  • What do you know about this field? Your applicant may not have worked in the social-impact sector before, but they should be able to showcase the research they’ve done to prepare as well as their passion for your issue area. Keep an ear out for questions they may have about how this internship may lead to further opportunities for learning and growth.
  • Why are you interested in our organization? Listen for specific projects or departments that interest them and their case for why an internship at your organization is the right next step. 

REMOTE HIRING TIP: Be sure to send candidates the online meeting invitation, as well as any meeting join codes, passwords, and instructions well in advance. You may ask them to hop on five minutes before the start of the meeting in order to check their audio, video, and internet connections.

Reference checks

While interns are often students with limited professional experience, you’ll still want to conduct a basic reference check to screen for any red flags. The references they list may be a manager from a high-school retail job, a babysitting client, or a college professor. Even though they may not fit the profile of a “traditional” reference, they should still be able to give you a good idea of the candidate’s strengths, weaknesses, and reliability. 

Here are a few questions to ask:

  • What were [CANDIDATE]’s specific responsibilities when you worked with them? Did they carry out the duties assigned?
  • In the role we’re hiring for, we are looking for someone who is [SKILLS REQUIRED, such as adaptable, able to work in a fast-paced environment, a skilled communicator]. How do you think that aligns with [CANDIDATE]’s strengths and areas for growth?
  • Can you provide an example of a time when [CANDIDATE] faced a challenge? How did they handle that situation?
  • Does [CANDIDATE] have any specific strengths or areas for growth that you’d like to highlight?
A hand holding a dollar bill.

Part 2: Compensation considerations

The Fair Labor Standards Act

When hiring an intern, it’s important to make sure they are being fairly compensated for their time and effort. There are a few ways to compensate, but what is most important here is that you’re following the law. 

In January 2018, the U.S. Department of Labor announced new intern compensation guidelines under the Fair Labor Standards Act. These revolve around something called the “primary beneficiary test” which determines who—the intern or the employer—is getting the most benefit out of the internship. If it is determined that the intern is the primary beneficiary, the company is not required to provide monetary compensation. But if the company is determined to be the primary beneficiary, then the law considers the intern to be an “employee” with the right to fair compensation.

We believe that internships almost always benefit both the intern and the organization—and as such, interns deserve to be compensated.

While the Fair Labor Standards Act guidelines were drafted with the private sector in mind, nonprofits generally need to adhere to this law as well. If you’re not planning on providing monetary compensation, you can read more about the guidelines here.

Compensation and equity

If your organization is located in a larger city, there’s a good chance that the cost of living is high. Offering compensation enables interns to dedicate more time and focus to your organization as they are less likely to seek out additional part-time work to meet their financial needs. 

Beyond this, compensating interns is a strong move toward equity in our sector. The practice of offering unpaid internships can unfairly advantage people who can afford to provide their time and labor for free, thereby providing less access to those who cannot. Compensating interns will bring your organization more candidates of diverse backgrounds and may ultimately broaden the talent pipeline into our sector.

Note: This is why Idealist stopped allowing unpaid internships to be posted to Idealist beginning in 2020, and required that all internships must be compensated with an hourly wage, salary, or stipend.

Paid or not, an internship should always be an opportunity for an intern to learn and grow. Be sure to identify and plan for mentorship opportunities for interns during their time with your organization. Mentorship may come from an intern’s direct supervisor or others at your organization, and if you can’t find the right fit within your organization, offering networking opportunities can help interns find other mentors in the field.

A note with a paperclip.

Part 3: Supervising and setting expectations

When it comes to goal setting for interns, timelines and deliverables should align with the short-term nature of their commitment and provide ample training in key skills. We recommend setting three to five goals, and including the following for each:

  • Any support and resources that may be needed to help them meet the goal;
  • Benchmarks to assess progress leading up to goal completion like project planning and draft or milestone deadlines;
  • And clear measures for successful goal completion. 

You may find it useful to set SMARTIE (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-Bound, Inclusive, and Equitable) goals. Learn more about SMARTIE goals here.

Define deliverables

Provide examples and clear parameters for intern projects by sharing work from former interns, organization-wide knowledge and best practices, and communication standards and processes. Also, be sure to specify what you’d like to see in drafts as the work progresses so that you can easily provide actionable guidance and feedback. 

Provide a clear and consistent reporting structure

Make sure your intern is on track with work and has the opportunity to ask questions and get feedback in a weekly check-in meeting. Regular meetings can also help you address any issues before they become a bigger problem. Let your intern know who the point person is on their projects, especially if an intern collaborates with multiple project leads.

REMOTE HIRING TIP: When working remotely, it’s easy to miss out on connections and networking opportunities that would be easy to find in the physical workplace. Be sure to introduce interns to the team when they first join. Give them a clear idea of to whom they should be reporting for different tasks. For example, do they have one general supervisor or does their work span several areas? And don’t forget to include them in meetings and invite them to any virtual social events hosted by your team or organization.

A blue calendar.

Part 4: From intern to full-time employee

Internship programs can be a great starting point for finding motivated, entry-level employees. After all, by the time they complete their internship, interns should have a good understanding of your organization’s projects and priorities. But if you’re interested in employing an intern once their internship period is over, you’ll have to make sure they feel motivated to continue working with you too!

Consider internships as a long-form candidate exercise

Assess an intern’s performance regularly during their internship to gain insight into their potential fit for a full-time role. Think about coaching conversations, performance check-ins, and training as opportunities for growth within your organization.

Offer mentorship

Interns will feel invested in and more likely to take on a full-time position at your organization in the future if there are strong mentorship opportunities. Provide space to talk about their career goals and interests, and introduce them to colleagues who may be able to offer additional guidance and insights.

Provide networking opportunities

As appropriate, invite interns to meetings with other staff, clients, or partners as well as to events and presentations. It can be a valuable experience even if they are just sitting in or taking notes. Encourage and create opportunities for interns to shadow employees in departments or teams that interest them as well. 

Learn more about how to help interns advance in their careers with hands-on learning opportunities—and how it can positively impact your organization: “How to Turn Interns into Your Biggest Ambassadors.”

A hand holding a plant.

Part 5: Managing an internship program

If you’re hiring interns on a regular basis, it may be time to create a more formal internship program. What you are able to offer will depend on the resources available within your organization, but here are a few key components to consider:

Appoint an intern program manager

An intern program manager offers consistency, reduces duplicative work for individual project managers, and acts as point person for all things related to interns at your organization. This could be someone in the human resources department or a role for a member of your staff seeking program or people management experience. 

Identify internship level and develop relationships with schools

Build relationships with undergraduate and graduate schools. Many community colleges and universities have career centers that are eager to make connections with organizations interested in hiring interns. And depending on the type of intern you’re seeking, you may also consider reaching out to organizations outside of academia, like parent or neighborhood associations, that have active community services. 

Provide structured support to individual intern managers

Supervising an intern is often a responsibility given to a new or junior staff person to help them gain management experience. Since interns usually have a longer learning curve due to less professional experience, managing them can be a tall order. Provide intern managers with regular opportunities to check in as well as strategies to try if their intern isn’t meeting performance expectations. It may also be useful for intern managers to meet with each other to collaborate and share best practices. Read more about building management experience here.

Create clear onboarding plans

Good internships hinge on the first few weeks on the job and start with the onboarding experience. For organizations, a strong onboarding plan can help interns acclimate quickly and contribute to their internship fully. Some important components of onboarding plans include: 

  • A short overview of your organization and conversation about your impact to provide context for an intern’s work and projects.
  • In-person (or on-video) introductions to staff members as well as an office announcement about an intern’s start date.
  • An office tour including where they can find supplies or other resources they may need.
  • A demonstration or introduction to one or more of the tasks they will perform in their role. 

Schedule regular events and programming for interns

Options to consider include: 

  • A series of brown bag lunches or one-on-one meetings featuring members of your staff and the work of their particular teams.
  • A panel of colleagues hired after graduating from college in the last two to three years to share their perspectives on the transition to the workforce.
  • A senior management panel to discuss the history and goals of the organization, as well as issues in the sector.
  • In-house training such as a workshop on advanced Excel skills or tips for writing professional emails.
  • A resume review workshop at the end of their internship.

Have an intern evaluation process in place

If interns are completing their internships for school credit, you’ll likely have to submit an evaluation of their work. It’s a good idea to have a basic process in place. This could be a form for the intern’s supervisor to fill out or a series of check-in meetings with the intern throughout their internship. If they are completing a specific project during their time with your organization, you should also give them the chance to present their work to colleagues and stakeholders.

Conduct exit interviews and provide offboarding

Engaging in an offboarding conversation can further inform an intern’s next steps and help them get the most out of their experience. It can also be a helpful practice to reflect on your own management and internship programming. Here are five important questions to ask as internships come to a close: 

  • Which goals/projects would you consider successful/completed?
  • Which goals/projects did not meet their targets? Why?
  • Identify three learnings from your time at the organization.
  • What was your favorite and least favorite part of the internship?
  • Do you have any suggestions or comments about our working relationship, the organization culture, or anything else related to your time as an intern?

Provide opportunities to share projects

Showcasing work can be a rewarding experience for the intern, their manager, and the organization. It can be as simple as setting aside time at a staff meeting or scheduling a short special meeting for interns to share a presentation or poster. Coupling this with an intern appreciation lunch offers a nice thank-you to interns for their work.

REMOTE HIRING TIP: The steps listed in this section are all great ways to manage an internship program, but may require some adjustment for a remote setting. You’ll want to ensure that all onboarding materials are easily accessible through your organization’s intranet or other knowledge-sharing platform. If you see remote work as an option for interns for the foreseeable future, you may consider creating online learning courses to help them get a better idea of your organizational culture and mission.


Whether you’re building an internship program from the ground up or making tweaks to an existing one, we hope this guide will serve as a resource for all your needs—from hiring to program management. We believe that harnessing the talent and enthusiasm of professionals new to the social-impact sector is critical, both for the sector itself and individual organizations. Thank you for joining us in this important work.

Have questions or comments about this guide? Feel free to reach out to us!