Summer is around the corner and you have a to-do list a mile long – what is an ideal solution? Use interns to help tackle it over the summer! We are so excited that apprenticeship (in all its forms: internships, job shadowing and project-based learning) has made a strong comeback as a hands-on learning experience for all types of jobs. Since 2015, we have rallied our clients and TrendSpotters to hire new-gen interns. Talent is the great multiplier for the social sector, and it is just as important for us to “grow our own” as it is for every other sector. This week, we’d like to discuss our best strategies for nurturing talent through paid internships, job shadowing and project-based learning.

When I was 16, I started as a law clerk for the City of Garland, Texas, interacting with City staff and elected officials. It was an eye-opening experience. Although I was running errands, getting coffee, answering phone calls from concerned citizens (this was before email) and typing at first, I grew into the role and was soon able to attend court proceedings, business lunches and legal training sessions. I also had to wear business clothes and learned a lot about office etiquette. I look back on that experience and have immense gratitude for all I learned and the people who took time to teach me. Like so many others who have benefited from paid internships, I consider that early professional experience a critical stepping stone in my educational pursuits and future career.

If talent is the great multiplier for the social sector, experience is the currency that drives many high school, college and graduate students to seek internships and project-based classroom courses. In an academic environment that currently focuses on comprehension, internships can provide hands-on experience and develop hard and soft skills. In fact, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, among 2013 graduates who had applied for a job, 63.1 percent of paid interns received at least one job offer and the median starting salary ($51,930) was significantly higher than those without the experience. It used to be that college was the ticket to a good job; now college plus internships and project-based learning are a better bet. So, how can the social sector capitalize on this trend, increase the number of students with paid internships and provide meaningful experiences, which lead to employment in the sector? Here are a few ideas:


Social sector organizations can and should focus on both undergraduate and graduate students but may also benefit from hiring high school students (like I was!). Start first with a list of short-term projects needing to be accomplished, and then gear the job description to the level of candidate needed.


For summer internships, great candidates start looking four to six months prior to the summer break. Some candidates take internships during the school year and often receive credit for their internship. Many colleges and universities allow job postings for students and alumni year-round, so you can post your ad whenever you are ready. The sooner you post, the better the candidate pool. For an intern this summer, start now!


The best jobs provide a range of experiences – job shadowing, group projects and individual short-term projects (which give the intern a completed project to show future employers). You can add clerical tasks, but the internship should also focus on projects that require critical thinking skills, such as social media audits, feasibility of social enterprise ideas or market research.


Pick two to three local universities and/or community colleges that have public affairs, social work/education/arts or business administration programs and connect with their career services centers online. Most likely, with just a job posting (we have shared ours as a starting point) and contact information, they will post the position for you, and you should begin to receive candidates. You can also post online at a number of resources, including Internships and Experience. We recommend a brief phone/Zoom interview to test both capability and compatibility. Then, conduct team in-person interviews with the top two to three candidates. Remember, these interviews are also a learning experience for the candidates, so, when possible, provide feedback to both successful and unsuccessful candidates.


Internships can also provide supervision experience with minimal risk to your organization’s rising stars. Give the task of leading the internship hiring process to an employee with potential. These individuals are more likely to have time to supervise and will be able to share their own experiences of learning the ropes with interns.


The White House made headlines last month when it began paying interns. Last June, President Biden signed an executive order asking the federal government to reduce its reliance on unpaid internships, as the U.S. depends on approximately 1 million unpaid interns according to a brief from the Center for Research on College-Workforce Transitions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In this research, it showed that middle-class and low-income students are more likely to “self-select out of unpaid work” because of their financial status. We strongly urge all social sector organizations to pay their interns or ensure that students get college credit for their work.


We love community programs that also source and provide interns to local nonprofits. In communities across the country, ExxonMobil has been providing a Summer Jobs Program to match the best and brightest from colleges with deserving nonprofits. You may want to ask your local Volunteer Center to see if a program like this exists in your community.

We have also seen a rise in project-based learning. In my classes at Southern Methodist University and The University of Texas at Arlington, we always end with a final real-world project. So, if you are not ready to hire an intern or want a professor to guide the work for supervision, you can also ask local colleges and universities to steer you toward professors (like me!) who are looking for small, course-driven projects that can be conducted over a semester (e.g., feasibility assessment, competitive research, market research study). [BTW: I am still in search of 2-3 DFW-based projects for my spring semester, so send along your needs.] You not only get free labor, but you also get a final product that has been vetted by an external party. As a bonus, students can also use this project in their portfolio with future employers.

What if the social sector’s “moonshot goal” was for every nonprofit to hire one intern or conduct one classroom-based project each year? We would TRIPLE the number of students with internships and provide many low-cost consulting services to nonprofits, which would result in a stronger workforce and many more recent graduates coming to and staying with the social sector. An invaluable experience for them will add energy and millennial/Gen Z know-how to your mission. It is a win-win that will have payoffs for all those involved. We’d love to hear about learning experiences you offer and how they have enriched your organization.


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