Increasing organizational capacity with interns

If you’re working for a nonprofit organization, there’s a good chance you have a running list of new programs or activities you’d like to implement to better serve your community. You probably also have limited time, staff, and money, which makes it hard (if not impossible) to add these new programs and activities.

If you’re committed to expanding but don’t quite have the resources you need, consider adding interns to your team. Not only will they help you expand, interns bring a host of other benefits:

Taking on interns can make a BIG difference for current employees. If interns take over employee’s tasks or projects, it can free up staff time for more impactful work. This can be a big boost to staff morale, can potentially lessen their workload, and can lead to improved employee retention.

Having interns in the office provides an opportunity for employees who aren’t in leadership roles to test out their management skills. Not only is this great experience for staff, it’s a perfect opportunity for executive leaders to identify staff who have promotion potential.

Interns provide new ideas, a fresh perspective, and tend to have more enthusiasm and energy than long-term employees (c’mon…you know it’s true!).

If you anticipate hiring in the future, bringing on interns who are interested in future employment gives you a low-risk opportunity to test their fit for permanent employment.

If you do it right, your interns will likely turn into dedicated advocates, supporters, and donors.

Despite all the benefits, I can hear some of you grumbling already. Perhaps you’ve taken on an intern or two in the past and it didn’t work out. But every single time someone complains to me about an intern, I ask them to share their process for hiring, onboarding, training, assigning projects, and evaluating the intern’s performance. And the response is always something along the lines of, “Well, the student called and asked if they could do an internship and we thought it would be great to have the help.”.

That’s it?! Whelp, guess what? Your intern was probably unimpressed too!

While there are always going to be lackluster interns, most organizations’ intern problems can be avoided by establishing a strong internship program.

Yes, this will take time and resources. But if you want a sustainable, affordable method for expanding your organization’s capacity, taking the time to implement a true internship program will be well worth the investment.

Here are 7 steps to setting up a successful internship program:


Establishing and maintaining an internship program is not free, easy, or quick. While the return on investment can be tremendous, if you don’t have the capacity to take on an intern, don’t do it. Here are some questions you should ask to determine if you’re ready:

  • Do we have any projects (not busy work) for an intern to work on?
  • Do we have time to train this person?
  • Do we have space in our office to accommodate another person?
  • Do we have the ability and willingness to provide oversight and guidance?
  • Can we meet the requirements of the student’s academic program?
  • Can we legally add an intern to our organization?
  • Do we have the money to take on an intern?

If done correctly, your intern should be using additional supplies, such as business cards, basic office supplies, an email address, etc. These things cost money so be sure you have enough before committing.

Will we pay the intern? If not, is this legal?
Although many of us slogged our way through unpaid internships, the National Association of Colleges and Employers report that 57% of  internships in 2017 were paid, although most of those were in the private sector. Regardless, it’s great if you’re able to pay your interns something.

Not convinced? Check out Vu Le’s article, When you host an unpaid internship, a unicorn is very, very sad.

Even if you aren’t going to pay an hourly wage, consider a monthly stipend, food, mileage reimbursement, a scholarship, gift cards, continuing education opportunities….really, anything! Also, be sure to check with your legal counsel and state labor department to ensure your unpaid intern and any benefits you offer the intern are legal.


Once you’ve thought through all those questions and feel comfortable moving forward, it’s time to develop the intern’s experience.

Check with local universities

A great place to start is by reviewing local universities’ academic programs to find the ones that are most aligned with the skill sets you’ll need. Call the program staff and ask if they can send you an internship/practicum handbook. This will give you insight on the required hours, length of internship, and possibly the types of experiences students must complete. This is also a good time to ask if the university requires a Memorandum of Understanding/Agreement for organizations hosting interns.

Create an internship description
Now it’s time to create an internship description, which will be exactly like a job description. Be sure to include the expected knowledge and skills, the key duties for the internship, and the expected outcomes of the position. This experience should not only benefit your organization, it should also benefit the intern (no, filing papers for 600 hours does not benefit the intern).

Coordinate logistics
Once you have a clear idea of what your intern will be doing, you can coordinate the logistics of adding another team member. You’ll want to identify and prepare the staff who will provide oversight, find a suitable office area for the intern to work, determine the days/times they’ll be needed, and consider the possibility of teleworking.


Before you begin recruiting for interns, consider what you’d like to get from this intern in the future. This is an investment of your time and resources, so you want it to pay maximum returns well into the future. Plus, staff and interns alike are less invested in ensuring a successful internship experience when there’s no future goal.

Is there a chance this person could be hired as an employee in the future? If so, let the intern know upfront and assess their fit and skills accordingly. If not, consider asking them to stay on for an extended internship or long-term volunteer opportunity. If neither of those are options, at least consider them as a potential advocate, supporter, and/or donor.


Just like you would with an employee, you’ll want to recruit, interview, and “hire” potential intern candidates.

Recruiting can be done by posting your internship description through a job search engine or universities’ career centers or academic programs. If you have a lot of internship opportunities, you may also want to attend a career/internship fair or speak with groups of students. Be sure to include details about the application process and if the internship is paid/unpaid in your description.

Schedule interviews with promising applicants and facilitate the interviews similar to employee interviews. Remember, this is an investment and you want to have the best interns working for you. Be prepared to let interns know during the interview process if the internship may lead to future employment. This clarifies expectations up front and helps the intern make an informed decision.


Comprehensive training is absolutely necessary if you want your internship program to succeed. Just like a new employee, an intern needs to understand your organization and its operations, meet other staff and volunteers, and be provided with the tools to do their job.

Here are some things you can do during the training period to make sure your intern is set up for success:

Block off time on their trainer’s calendar so there’s time for training. Otherwise, the intern will feel like an inconvenience and will never be properly trained.

Provide the intern with an intern handbook on their first day. Here are some ideas for what to include:

  • An organization overview
  • Branding/formatting guidelines
  • Resources available to them
  • The internship description and objectives
  • Compensation and benefits information (if any)
  • Scheduling, including holidays
  • Absence, tardy, and termination policies
  • Legal policies that need to be signed, such as media releases, technology usage policies, anti-discrimination, non-disclosure, etc.

Introduce the intern to other staff, volunteers, and board members.

Provide them with a work space and the tools they’ll need to complete their projects. This will include basic office supplies, an email address, a computer, and access to a printer.

Discuss your expectations with the intern in detail. Be sure to mention how their contribution will support the organization and the community members who depend on your services.

BONUS: Help your intern feel invested from the beginning with a few added perks. Give them some business cards and a name tag (if your staff have them), add them to your website, and announce their arrival on your social media pages.


One of my favorite business quotes is, “Hire great people and get out of their way.”. I know, this is a scary thought. But if you want your intern to benefit your organization, you have to let them loose. Otherwise, your time or your staff’s time is wasted on babysitting, your intern gets bored and feels useless, and it becomes a sour relationship.

So, train your interns well, provide clear objectives and expectations, establish a review and approval process, and let them go.


Neither your interns or your staff are mind readers. Help them live up to your expectations by giving them regular feedback on what they’re doing well and what they need to improve. Also use this time to ask how you can support their growth and development, and what you can do better. The feedback process establishes trust, improves morale, and enables interns to meet expectations and produce quality work.

Okay, you are now ready to implement an amazing internship program that will produce results for your interns, organization, and community. Drop us an email any time to let us know how your program is going!

If you’re ready to start a program but don’t have time for the planning, contact us to learn more about how we can help. 

Do you have other ideas about how to create and maintain a great internship program? Comment below!

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October 16, 2018

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