What makes the perfect internship?

Posted on: 25 June 2014

What makes the perfect third sector internship? To answer this, I thought I’d go straight to those who’ve been there, done that: each year Student Hubs places around 100 student interns with innovative charities and social enterprises through our Social Impact Internship Scheme – so I’ve gathered some of their thoughts on what makes a good internship, based on feedback from the Scheme’s past interns. Here’s what came up…

First off, it is imperative that organisations taking on interns provide them with a clear role and a well thought out activity plan. Whether that’s a single project that they see to completion or an interesting range of smaller tasks or projects, interns hugely appreciated it when organisations had thought about this in advance. They saw little benefit to them, or their organisation, if they turned up each day to a manager who conjured up tasks on the spot. Many interns also appreciated the chance to do something autonomously, or take on responsibility for a (appropriate) task or project. This is likely something they could then talk about in future interviews, and take away a real sense of development from doing.

Secondly, it is crucial that interns are well integrated into the organisation; it was important to interns that they had one clear person who was their go-to. The risk otherwise is to feel ‘plonked’ into an organisation, potentially leaving interns unsure of where to ask for help and feeling unwanted by their organisation. Also, student or graduate interns may have little experience working in a professional environment – so they need support. Moreover, they need for that support to be forthcoming: it was much easier for them to ask for guidance when they felt that the ‘door was open’ for them to do so, rather than when they were made to feel that their asking was a burden to their organisation.

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Furthermore, while lots of interns joined the Social Impact Internship Scheme because they hoped to make a difference over the summer, that desire is not invalidated by them being very keen to make sure they develop personally from their time too. Successful placements included time at the beginning to set objectives with the intern and flexing project plans around that. Also, there’s a lot of value in offering interns opportunities to learn more and gain insight into the sector. For example, is there an interesting meeting they could sit in on, a talk or conference they can come along to, can they write a blog post, or is there someone who would be great for them to meet? Furthermore, can they be offered any training or mentorship relevant to the role they are undertaking? Any of these make internships so much more worthwhile, and I’m sure it barely needs stating that increasing interns’ confidence and knowledge reaps rewards in terms of the work they are then able to do. To complement this, Student Hubs also recommends holding an exit interview with all interns (and I can vouch for the value of this from personal, interning experience), where the intern is encouraged to reflect on what they’ve gained, offered any insight and advice, and signposted to other people or opportunities.

Lastly, no discussion of internships could skip over the financial challenges of interning. Of course, if they can, organisations should pay interns. Charities and social enterprises should not be automatically exempt from this. However, the reality is that many such organisations are simply not in a position to pay but are in a position to offer all of the other trappings of a meaningful and beneficial placement, so we should recognise that interns still do stand to gain a lot from an internship in the sector, even if it is unpaid. (For more on this topic, please see my colleague Laura’s article here.) That being said, travel and lunch expenses represent the absolute minimum remuneration for interns. Organisations must be upfront in reimbursing expenses and outlining the process for this, as some interns will struggle silently over this, feeling guilty for asking. Also, interns appreciated flexibility from host organisations. Some needed to work to support themselves alongside the placement, and this can’t necessarily just be at the weekend, so offering a mixture of flexible working and the chance to work remotely sometimes proved helpful. It may well be tempting to only accept interns able to pay their way full-time for months on end, but this simply perpetuates the problem that currently plagues internships — and besides, this could lead an organisation to miss out on some truly stunning candidates, for whom a little flexibility would go a long way!

Tasha Unwin

Tasha is the Support Officer for Southampton Hub and a member of the Social Impact Careers team at Student Hubs. She studied English as an undergraduate at the University of Southampton, where she was also Southampton Hub Coordinator.

Tags: Social Impact Careers


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