Scoping the Nonprofit Scene for Internships

There was a time when nonprofits were seen – at least by some industries – as out of touch organizations with an inadequate business and marketing approach, slow to create and respond to changes, and only an option for job-seekers who didn’t care about making money. You might not share those same beliefs; but what is true about nonprofits today is that they’re just as eager to gain the talent and help of young creatives as their for-profit counterparts. And with budgets being tightened on both ends of the profit spectrum, ideas and practices are being swapped with increased energy and ease. However, there are still a few notable differences between the two that you’ll want to keep in mind as you explore the nonprofit internship scene:

Size matters.
About three quarters of all nonprofits operate with budgets under $500,000, meaning their staffs are small and often thinly stretched. The chances that you’ll find yourself interning in an office with fewer than ten people is much higher than it is in the for-profit world. But this doesn’t have to indicate an especially bad experience.

Small nonprofits often have their interns dabbling in every facet of the organization – from administration to development to program management – allowing a broader range of experiences not often offered by larger organizations which separate their interns by division or tasks. Depending on what you’re looking for, this sort of internship can be helpful for wetting your feet in multiple pools of nonprofit operations. The smaller size also means you’ll be expected to work independently and with little guidance, so make sure you’re someone who can handle it before diving in.

Pay attention to track records – their’s and your’s.
Nonprofits are largely run by the support and work of volunteers, meaning they already know something about managing their extra help around the office. But noting how established an organization appears from the start can help you gauge what to expect for your internship experience – and help you steer away from those with less structure and operational oomph. A friend of mine worked with an organization that was just in their fourth year, developing their donor communications and marketing strategies from scratch. She had had enough prior experience to take the reins on the project and was so successful that the organization created a full-time position for her the next year.

However, while some amount of ambiguity and distance can enhance an intern’s effectiveness, it can also be disorienting, especially if you’re still testing or learning your own skill set. Be aware of how your experience would match with the structure and setup of each internship you scope out. Don’t expect that you’ll be led through the experience. Ask about their previous work with interns and the expectations they have for the end outcome.

You don’t need to be an expert – or a lifelong advocate – for an organization’s cause.

I hear this one a lot. Oftentimes, people assume that nonprofits won’t hire an intern who doesn’t have a huge chunk of resume devoted to their mission. While it could never hurt for your experience to demonstrate interest in a nonprofit’s work, it is not the biggest requirement. Listing your ideas for how your talents – in writing, web design, social media marketing, whatever – would advance their goals and build your portfolio is the best bullet point you can make, no matter which sector you’re in.

Karina Briski has been in the world of 9-5’s for nearly two years and has taken numerous internships with nonprofits and small social enterprises in her off-hours to keep the creative juices flowing. She’s in the process of moving from Seattle to New York City this month to put her intern skills to the real test. She also writes a bunch about anything that comes to mind, and her work can be found in various corners of the web, including on a blog that she sometimes forgets about updating. She shares most of her important news via Twitter.


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2 comment on “Scoping the Nonprofit Scene for Internships

  1. Pingback: NY Creative Interns » Finding Your Creativity in a Nonprofit Internship

  2. Pingback: Find Your Creativity in a Nonprofit Internship | The Savvy Intern by YouTern

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