nonprofit provocateur

Unpaid internships: hindrance to social change?

Posted on: September 8, 2009

Marc Cuban, billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball team, has just discovered that unpaid internships as commonly practiced may be illegal. He’s none too happy about this state of affairs, judging by the lengthy post that appeared on his blog over the weekend, and some in the nonprofit world have taken note. With good reason: unpaid internships have become a sort of de facto point of entry for many nonprofit careers, and a good number of organizations rely heavily on them to get help from bright, motivated young people at a cost these organizations might not be able to afford otherwise: free. Naturally, the legality of this is a concern.

I’ll leave the issues of legality to the legal experts. However, regardless of what any such experts say, a more important question that nonprofits who are committed to social change need to ask themselves is whether or not they should use unpaid interns. Does this practice further or hinder the pursuit of social change?

At first glance, the answer would seem to be a resounding, Well, duh! Of course we should continue to use unpaid interns if we can. After all, the nonprofit sector is well known for not having enough money to do all that needs to be done, and the work done by the sector is very often of the utmost import – urgently helping those in the tumultuous aftermath of a disaster or war, helping those on the verge of starvation or without water or medicine or homes, working to restore balance to the environment. And yes, funding is often a major concern, especially today. That said, the nonprofit sector still must question whether they should rely so heavily on unpaid interns, as a matter of principle.

The only way to break into many fields – and the nonprofit sector is increasingly one of them – is through an internship, paid or not. Usually not. While the experience gained is often invaluable, the problem becomes who is able to gain this experience. Or rather, who isn’t able. Unless supported by the Bank of Mom and Dad, many kids can’t afford to dedicate 20+ hours a week—on top of school—without some sort of pay beyond “college credit.” Those are usually the kids who already have part-time jobs, taken not so much with career development in mind, but for survival and to help pay for the necessities of school.

Which means that the kids who are able to afford months of work for nothing more than “credit” and “experience” are often the kids who come from middle class or affluent backgrounds, those with parents who can afford to support them while they work to get their careers off the ground. Which means that relying on unpaid internships as a de facto requirement for entry into a particular field only cements class divisions within that field – as well as racial ones, as the two are inarguably linked. An entire post was even dedicated to the subject on “Stuff White People Like,” a satirical blog that pokes fun at just such divisions between race and class.

My question to nonprofits is this: if you are serious about creating social change and are in the business of making the world a more just, fairer and all-around more egalitarian place, should you contribute to a practice that makes it more difficult for those who aren’t born privileged to get a leg up in the world, effectively hindering your goal of change? Because the interns of today are the most poised to become the leaders of tomorrow. If you doubt that such a practice can hamper social change efforts, look at your boards and higher level executive staff. Do they honestly resemble the diverse, socially just world we all want to create?

Yes, it’s difficult to undo a firmly entrenched practice, especially in this day when funding is so tight. One solution would be to build such internships into funding requests at the outset. Surely there are more solutions as yet to be thought of. Besides, if we as a sector can’t come up with creative alternatives to this, how are to take on the larger social justice issues with any seriousness and real hope for change?

Social change isn’t easy. If it were, with over a million nonprofits striving to do good, we would have made much more progress than we have. That’s not to say it is impossible, however. But it does require an unflinching honesty and unwavering commitment to instilling an ethos of social justice into all that we do, from the entry level ground positions and up.


3 Responses to "Unpaid internships: hindrance to social change?"

Well said! I completely agree and have often found it remarkable that the only people hired at organizations created to help others are those who cannot even relate to the need. Volunteering for causes we believe in is a wonderful thing, and internships (even without pay) are incredibly valuable learning experiences. Nevertheless, all too often the situation leads to a long line of inappropriate consequences that you detailed beautifully. Thanks for speaking up!

I completely agree with you — it’s something I’ve been meaning to write about as well (but you beat me to it!). The truth is that non-profits are perpetuating a culture in which rich kids can afford to take on unpaid internships, while lower-income students have to taken on paid jobs to pay off their rent and loans. It’s simply unfair and they have to think twice about this policy.

Thanks for the reply, it is nice to know someone else thinks these things through!

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