By Angel Braestrup, Executive Director
Curtis & Edith Munson Foundation
Washington, D.C., is an intern magnet. In many of our region’s sectors, an internship is the assumed first rung on the professional ladder. But what many don’t know is that unpaid internships are, for the most part, illegal – and the number of lawsuits around the issue is rising. Moreover, unpaid internships create a ripple of inequality in the labor pool.
Many interns come from a place of economic security that allows them to give their time away for free and cover the associated expenses. The majority of young adults don’t have the same luxury. For them, the financial burden of unpaid internships undermines their opportunities to both participate and leverage the corresponding experience to help achieve the kind of decent-paying jobs that inspired them to pursue their educations.
These are the specific obstacles to intern diversity that I’ve observed:
1) Economic: The burden of no financial compensation speaks for itself—financing appropriate business attire, room, board, and transportation. But even with $12 per hour pay, three of the five interns in our suite (four organizations) must work additional jobs in order to make their minimum earnings goal for the college year, while also meeting housing and transportation needs for the summer.
2) Funder support: Funders hesitate to specifically support internship programs, even though they can ensure that interns are paid and useful to either the foundation or its grantees.
3) Housing and transportation: Access to affordable housing and transportation is critical to the success of an internship, which is a challenge in expensive places like our region. Many internships provide the professional opportunity but not housing or transportation subsidies.
I have spent a lot of time and energy thinking about how our grantees conduct their internship programs and how our foundation manages our own. I’ve also thought about how funders can work to foster an internship culture that is educational, useful to the organization, accessible to socioeconomically diverse students and recent graduates, and, above all, legal.
Two solutions align with my observations above. First, funders should work to ensure that their grantees and funder colleagues are aware of the legal requirements for internships. Second, foundations should consider funding internship programs – both for themselves and their grantees – with an eye towards diversifying access to the first rung: geographically, economically, and otherwise.
Internships have a double bottom line. They nourish the interns with real world education and experience and open the doors to future nonprofit careers as the existing cohort of dedicated workers retires. They also supplement an organization’s capacity, which is often a critical support mechanism for under-staffed nonprofits and expand their reach through the intern’s natural network of family and friends.
Funders have an opportunity – and, I believe, an ethical obligation – to change thinking around internships and make them more equitable, diverse, and fruitful.