World's Best Intern: Advice from Nonprofits to Interns | Beth's Blog

World’s Best Intern: Advice from Nonprofits to Interns

Capacity Building

I’ve just finished teaching a class at the Monterey Institute of International Studies based on my books, The Networked Nonprofit and Measuring the Networked Nonprofit.  The course is  about how to leverage networks and social media for learning and impact.    It was an amazing experience and so delighted that I’m doing a FREE webinar next week to share some reflections on designing and delivering an effective nonprofit training.

The grad students in my class will be doing an internship as part of their field work, being placed in international organizations in the US and around the world.   They will be doing a variety of work tasks (not just social media and networks) and on a range of international public policy issues.     While the primary goal is for students to learn about strategic use of networks and social media for international organizations,  I was lucky enough to teach some practical career skills such as effective networking, self-directed professional learning (also called “Social Learning”), and the topic of this blog post:  ways to be an effective intern.

Students Discussing Their Assessments of Host Organizations

Most of my teaching and training has been for people who work in nonprofits who want to find and work with an intern to assist with their integrated social media plans or measurement.   For the class,  we spent time on  ways these students can become the world’s best intern instead of the intern from hell.  But first, it was helpful to hear some of their concerns:

  • Understanding the unwritten rules of conduct for my organization that may get in the way of expanding their social media presence
  • Cultural barriers at the host organization and that my expertise and skills will be under utilized
  • To get my host organization started on Facebook and have it be sustained after I leave
  • Speaking up, sharing my ideas and thoughts

This are great insights for nonprofits who want to work with interns on their social media as I’m sure these are common points of tension.


Since this internship is an academic internship – that is connected to their course work,   I asked colleague, Heather Carpenter, Ph.D. and Assistant Professor at Grand Valley State University what she has learned about the success factors of academic internships.  She mentioned that there is a lot of research, books, and handbooks.    She said that the most important lesson for successful academic internships where the student will work on a class project with a nonprofit is: clarity among students, faculty and organizations about the expectations of projects.

Other tips for academic internships include:

  • Clarify Internship Goals:    Students will have specific learning goals for their internship on one hand and nonprofits that are supervising them might have others.   Therefore, it is important for the student to initiate the conversation about what the internship does or does not include and share any specific learning goals at the start of the internship.
  • Set Regular Meeting Time with Your Supervisor: The host organization will assign someone to supervise the student.   The student should ask to set up a regular meeting time.  This way can avoid popping into the supervisor’s office or feeling that the supervisor won’t talk to them because they are too busy.  A regular standing meeting once a week for 30 minutes will avoid frustrations.  Also, the student may need more frequent meetings in the beginning.

Infographic About History of Internships from InternMatch

I was curious to learn what nonprofit colleagues who have managed interns in all areas including social media had to say.   I asked them: If you were on-boarding a new intern and you wanted them to be as successful as possible, what advice would you offer?

Here’s what I learned from Amy Sample Ward, Alejandra S. Owens, Sharon Illsen, Jenna Sauber, Matthew Spaur. Caroline Avakian,  Katie Young,  Charles Lenchner,  Danielle Siembieda-Gribben,  Jeremey Bivens, and Janet Fouts

  • Understand the Office Norms: Some organizations have different cultural ques when comes to use of technology.   For example, some might frown at taking a personal cell call at your desk and view it as unprofessional, while others might find this perfectly acceptable.     The same goes for dress codes.   In the work place, in office people dress in business casual or formal business attire.    Coming to work in t-shirt and jeans may not be appropriate.  Observe the dress code.
  • Get To Know People: Spend time getting to know other people that work for the organization with brief break room conversations or having lunch, dinner, or coffee.  Find a few staffers that you want to shadow or learn from and develop a professional relationship.
  • Participate: Don’t feel confined by written learning objectives.  As long as you are accomplishing your goals, you may also want to ask about attending other meetings both inside and outside the office.   There is so much learn from observing and understanding organizational culture, interactions, power dynamics, leadership practices, and team work.
  • Build Relationships: The internship is not just about getting work experience.  It is a great networking opportunity.   Building relationships at the organization can help you beyond your internships.
  • There’s No Such Thing As A Stupid Question: Students should not be afraid to ask questions.  Sometimes we feel that asking a question makes us look stupid.  It is the opposite, it makes you seem curious and an engaged learner, not a sign of inability.    But be careful how often you interrupt your supervisor to ask questions.  Sometimes it helpful to keep a log and ask them during your regular meeting.
  • Don’t Be Afraid To Try New Things: Your internship is a great laboratory for learning new skills and ideas.  Just because the task isn’t specifically related to your degree, it might open up your world.
  • Take Pride In Your Work: Make the little stuff count, like managing your time, checking your work, and being respectful of others.
  • Attitudes Matter: Come to your internship with a can-do attitude and be flexible.      Don’t feel that certain tasks or work is beneath you.   Be professional, communicate clearly, show up on time, ask questions when you don’t understand, and be proactive about volunteering for new tasks.    Think of your internship as an extended job interview.     Also, if the internship isn’t the right fit, it is temporary.  It might be a good chance to network.  And in the end, if discover that working a particular type of organization, team, or task isn’t what you want, that’s a gift.

Several colleagues offered some advice to nonprofits that want to work successfully with interns.  Jayne Cravens offered these tips for organizations in designing an internship program so that the intern learns something.

Carrie Lewis Carlson from the Human Society, mentioned that her organization has an intern “buddy system” that pairs interns and new employees with an employee that’s been here awhile, and have a private Facebook group for them to get to know one another.  Says Carrie, “Every intern I talk to says the most awkward part about being an intern is not knowing anyone.  We schedule intro meetings with every key manager in our department.”     Michael Nealis adds, “Remember you were in college once and worrying about whether to buy books or lunch? Your intern does that too. Buy them lunch once in a while. Even if they’re paid.”

Peggy Duvette at WiserEarth that defining specific goals for the intern with weekly check-in meetings and comprehensive on-boarding is essential to success.  Says Peggy, “We basically put a lot of efforts to ensure that the intern felt like an equal team partner in the office”

Jennifer Parsons from Make A Wish also agrees that a robust on-boarding program is key factor in a successful internship.  This process includes learning about the whole organization through formal orientation sessions.   Says Parsons,  “We emphasize  that although there will be busy work, we would be doing the same work if the intern wasn’t. In other words, all of the work has value – it won’t be stapling and running errands (the old reputation of bad internships).”  Parsons suggests that nonprofits also need to understand their intern’s strengths and interests. “When an intern begins, I always ask, “What experience are you hoping to gain/add to your resume?”  This way I can ensure the work is valuable and the intern will hopefully feel more invested.”   She also suggests providing a variety of tasks, both short-term and long-term projects and to ask for feedback/ideas from the intern.

What advice would you offer a new intern with your organization to ensure a successful internship?


9 Responses

  1. Tobie says:

    Great article. I direct a master’s program in performing arts management at Brooklyn College and my students are required to have three to four professional internships. As a result, the majority are employed in industry related jobs by the time they graduate. Thank you for sharing your tips.

    Tobie Stein, Ph.D.
    Director, MFA Performing Arts Management
    Brooklyn College

  2. These are all wonderful recommendations–for interns and those who love them. But I would also like to suggest that NPOs and others who offer internships consider adding something else to the mix: a meaningful stipend. Asking someone to work for free is, however well intentioned, exploitive and, in this economy, unlivable. It can also be elitist because who but someone with affluent parents or other form of financial support can afford to live without any sort of compensation. You can’t eat “experience” and short-term college credits don’t pay the rent.

    For college graduates in the arts or nonprofit world, it’s an even crueler reality. We are losing a generation of workers in the internship economy and considering the loans these young people have to pay that’s just unacceptable.

  3. Tobie says:

    Susan, you are so right. Interns must be paid.

  4. Beth says:

    Tobie: I think internships are an extended job interview.

    Susan, you are so right! Follow the link by Jayne Craven – it’s a whole article about that issue.

  5. Carol says:

    While I agree that interns SHOULD be paid, as the ED of a small non-profit, we would not be able to afford to do so. instead we cover gas costs and provide a rich learning experience.
    To those beginning internships I would advise that you not expect that you will be given high level, high prestige types of responsibilities when you first come in the door. it is incumbent on you to earn your supervisor’s trust in your skill, integrity, and consistency.

  6. […] Finally, if you hiring new interns this year, have them read this advice from Beth Kanter. […]

  7. […] Feel free to check out this article that we enjoyed reading: “World’s Best Intern“. […]

  8. Teresa says:

    We are a small NPO, but we are lucky enough to have a generous donor who is sponsoring interns each year for the next 5 years. Depending upon the number of interns we get each, year, we can usually offer them a $300-$500 stipend. Otherwise, we are not in a position to pay our interns. It is tough because we are competing with local government agencies who do offer paid internships. We live in a town with a state college so that is very helpful, and with our reputation among the college and students, we are fortunate that we do get a lot of internship requests (with no expectation to get paid). So, we believe strongly that you can get quality interns without financial incentives, you just have to build that reputation and make your internship so valuable that others will be attracted to your program!

  9. Ebbema Emmanuel says:

    Wonderful infornation and wish you all the best.

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