How to Create and Fund a Nonprofit Internship Program

9 min
people collaborating on desk
Korrin Bishop

The best internship programs create value for both the intern and the business or organization hosting the program. Host organizations receive critical support on their projects and access to a pool of talent for later hiring decisions. Meanwhile, students can apply skills they may have only learned about in a classroom to real-world scenarios and build their resumes for future employment. With 60% of employers preferring candidates that have past internship experience, these programs are vital for young professionals.

However, 57% of internships at nonprofits are unpaid, which can create a dynamic that exacerbates the exact socioeconomic inequities many nonprofits work to end. Furthermore, women are 77% more likely than men to have one of these unpaid internships, and the positions are also thought to reinforce the racial wealth gap. An unpaid internship could mean a student from a low-income background may not have the financial resources to cover the housing, transportation, meal, and other costs that come with accepting an unpaid opportunity. These costs are often in addition to the thousands of dollars students pay to their universities for required internship academic credits.

Yet, the truth remains that nonprofits face tight budgets and limited resources for their funding priorities. While your organization might want to pay your interns, it can feel overwhelming trying to figure out how. That’s why we turned to three professionals who lead aspects of their organizations’ internship programs for their insights.

Below, we’ll introduce you to them and cover five tips they shared for how to create value for your interns, whether or not you can pay them. Then, we’ll detail their insight on how you can communicate the impact of internships to your stakeholders and build a case for potential funders. We’ll conclude with some quick notes on how they’ve pivoted their programs to continue providing value to their interns while navigating the coronavirus pandemic.

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Meet the Internship Leaders

We spoke with representatives from three organizations that offer paid internship programs. One is a for-profit, the second is a nonprofit, and the third is a foundation. Despite the difference in industries, each offered advice you can adapt for your nonprofit.

Kelly Goodall, Lead People Partner in People Operations at Classy

Our first internship source comes from in-house. Kelly Goodall is a lead people partner within the people operations department here at Classy. Classy’s internship program places students and recent graduates across various departments for hands-on learning each summer.

Our internship program is constantly evolving. We always try to find out what resonates with interns the most in order to continually improve what the program will look like.

Kelly Goodall
Lead People Partner in People Operations at Classy

Amber Gardner, Intern Program and Partnerships Director at To Write Love on Her Arms

To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA) is a nonprofit “dedicated to presenting hope and finding help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide.” Amber Gardner started working there in 2019 and welcomed her first group of interns in January 2020.

TWLOHA hosts full-time internships in fall, spring, and summer that come with furnished housing. They’re also in the process of finalizing details to provide a paid opportunity to all participants for their time. Throughout the experience, staff make a conscious effort to incorporate interns into the mission-driven fabric of the nonprofit. 

The goal of the intern program is to create a community of people willing and equipped to live out the TWLOHA mission. The two main ways we envision this happening is through education and community. Because we deeply value the work and help that interns provide our organization, we have structured the intern program so that it will give back to interns not only professionally, but also to their personal development.

Amber Gardner
Intern Program and Partnerships Director at To Write Love on Her Arms

Stephanie Molnar, Program Officer in Leadership Development at the Cleveland Foundation

The Cleveland Foundation works to enhance the lives of residents in the greater Cleveland area by building a community endowment, addressing local needs through grantmaking, and providing leadership on key community issues. It started its summer internship program in 1999 to provide opportunities for talented, diverse undergraduates and recent graduates to work within the region’s nonprofit and public sector organizations, all while bolstering the capacity of those local entities.

To accomplish this, the foundation partners with local nonprofits interested in hosting an intern. The foundation then manages the intern application and interview process, typically accepting about 18 interns per summer, each placed at a different host nonprofit or public sector organization. The foundation makes a grant to the host organization to cover the intern’s $13/hour salary for 32 to 40 hours per week over the 11-week placement. It also continues to partner with the host nonprofits to increase professional development opportunities for interns and leverage its intern alumni network of more than 350 past participants. 

Stephanie Molnar first connected with the Cleveland Foundation in 2016 when she received one of its summer internship placements supporting Greater Cleveland Volunteers. She later interned directly with the foundation’s community responsive grantmaking team. Today, as a program officer with the foundation, she manages its community leadership and development initiatives, which include the summer internship program.

That was really the start to my current career. My host site was definitely the best match for me.

Stephanie Molnar
Program Officer in Leadership Development at the Cleveland Foundation

5 Ways to Provide Value for Your Interns

Whether or not you’re currently able to pay your interns, there are ways to design your program that provide ample learning, networking, and hands-on opportunities for them. Focus on these elements when designing your program to create a positive and valuable experience for your interns. This will also help ensure your nonprofit is meeting the U.S. Department of Labor’s test for unpaid interns under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

1. Give Your Intern a Clear Project and Supportive Manager

A mutually beneficial internship requires upfront planning and staff buy-in. The Cleveland Foundation has built this into their program by requiring that nonprofits submit a formal application for the opportunity to host a summer intern. 

Our application for host organizations asks for a description of what the tentative supervision for the intern would look like, the dedicated project that the intern will be helping move along within the 11 weeks, and a commitment to leadership development for the interns.

Stephanie Molnar
Program Officer in Leadership Development at the Cleveland Foundation

Outlining a project and assigning mentors ahead of time creates a more fulfilling experience for both interns and the organization. Interns aren’t left unsure of what they should be doing, and staff aren’t faced with recurring interruptions to their day trying to fill an intern’s time. Demonstrating a clear project objective for an intern also provides the intern with a sense of ownership and direction. Additionally, it confirms they will be gaining specific skills through hands-on learning rather than just providing free administrative labor, which is a role more appropriate for a volunteer. 

Nonprofits can provide interns with the description of their main project upfront to help shape expectations. This should be paired with a supervisor who is both on board with the project plan and encourages the intern to take advantage of other learning opportunities throughout the internship.

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2. Provide Organized Learning and Professional Development Sessions

A valuable internship for a student or recent graduate goes beyond completing a project. For many interns, this is their first experience in the career world, so additional professional development opportunities are a critical complement to their work.

Oftentimes, we have interns who are still trying to figure out exactly what they want to do. They might know they want to work with a specific technology or at an organization that matches their values, but they’re still learning a lot. So, we offer opportunities for them to see what it’s like to work in a variety of different capacities and how to be successful in landing the job you want once you’ve figured out exactly what career path you want to target.

Kelly Goodall
Lead People Partner in People Operations at Classy

Classy organizes a career day for interns to explore their professional development questions beyond their work in their assigned department. The event involves a series of sessions on what it looks like to build a career path in marketing, human resources, product development, and a variety of other areas that may not be the intern’s current focus. In addition, interns learn how to navigate the interview process, and receive resume and LinkedIn profile reviews to see how they can improve their materials.

The Cleveland Foundation encourages host nonprofits to offer expanded learning opportunities. In addition, it organizes its own full-day, bi-weekly professional development series for the entire cohort. Presentations may come from the foundation’s leadership, members of the internship program’s Alumni Advisory Group, or other local professionals. For example, alumni hosted a virtual session during the coronavirus pandemic on practicing self-care at work. The foundation also organizes events such as networking mixers or luncheons with the foundation’s board.

Interns really appreciate as many opportunities as they can get. For example, going to meetings with stakeholders or giving presentations to the board are really valuable experiences for them to advance their skills, such as public speaking, and see the bigger structures of nonprofit work in action.

Stephanie Molnar
Program Officer in Leadership Development at the Cleveland Foundation

3. Connect Your Intern With Other Departments and Organizations

Interns are at a stage where they are exploring career options and how their education and interests might meld with them. Learning about a variety of roles can help interns discover which jobs might be the best fit and most fulfilling for them to eventually apply to. It can also help them hone in on relevant classes to take in their final years of college. 

In addition to presentations at the Classy career fair, interns have the chance to meet one-on-one with staff from different departments to learn about roles across the company. For example, while an intern might be placed in a marketing role, they can still benefit from an opportunity to understand what a product development position would look like by asking questions directly to someone on that team. 

The Cleveland Foundation gives each intern the opportunity to meet members of leadership at all of the host organizations from that year. This offers interns the chance to learn about 18 diverse opportunities in the community that span social services, arts and culture, environmental issues, local government, and more.

Interns meet with the [other] organizations’ leadership or engage in an activity that highlights more of their work or services within a particular department or specific population.”

Stephanie Molnar
Program Officer in Leadership Development at the Cleveland Foundation

4. Incorporate Your Intern Into Your Organization’s Culture

For many interns, this is their first taste of office life. This is a great opportunity for your nonprofit to demonstrate how a company’s culture fits into the work while also highlighting what makes your organization such a great place to be. 

TWLOHA emphasizes the importance of folding interns into its culture by making an intentional effort to share the nonprofit’s values with the intern team. The team also works hard to let the interns know they are appreciated and encourage meaningful connections between interns and staff. This helps create the sense of belonging and community that is a core element of TWLOHA’s mission. 

“A huge part of what makes our intern program unique is the emphasis on community. Not only with other interns, but with staff, and our entire TWLOHA community. We ensure our interns feel valued and known by including them in department meetings, where we expect them to contribute their ideas and feedback. 

We celebrate our interns when they arrive and take the time to get to know each of them. We provide community funds that allow interns to host dinners or events with other staff, to get to know them outside of work hours. And at the end of each intern term, we have a two-day celebration to reflect on all the work they completed and thank them for their hard work and dedication.”

Amber Gardner
Intern Program and Partnerships Director at TWLOHA

5. Help Interns Feel Like a Close-Knit Group

If your nonprofit has multiple interns, it’s likely they are spread across different divisions. Their work might not overlap much, but you can still facilitate networking, socializing, and learning between them. Creating a sense of community among interns increases the chance that they’ll maintain contact and help each other with professional connections in the future. Being part of a close-knit group also establishes an outlet where they can find peer support throughout their internship, sharing experiences with someone who understands their perspective.

At the Cleveland Foundation, interns are placed across 18 different organizations. However, they all come together for their bi-weekly professional development sessions, visit each other’s locations, and attend more informal social events. The program also supports an Alumni Advisory Group, which connects current interns to the roughly 350 alumni of the program, many of whom still live in the area and are active in the nonprofit and public sectors. 

The alumni create a great bridge into future opportunities for the current cohort and interns can see how they can continue to be involved. They have others they can reach out to and feel connected with.

Stephanie Molnar
Program Officer in Leadership Development at the Cleveland Foundation

Classy creates a cohort feeling by bringing interns together from across departments for social events, such as a baseball game. It also helps to have networking events with activities that encourage meeting new people. For example, Classy interns have played “Get to Know You BINGO,” which facilitates getting to know each other at a mixer rather than just hoping interns will walk up to one another.

How to Find Funding for Your Internship Program

Shifting away from an unpaid internship model can seem daunting, but putting in the effort to do so makes a big difference for students and recent graduates. It’s a needed step toward leveling the playing field, and there are two main pieces to getting started. First, you’ll need to know where to look for funding, and then, how to communicate your case for support.

Unfortunately, when an internship is unpaid, it creates barriers for students. They might have a strong interest in nonprofit work or public service, but need to be able to pay their bills, so they can’t access full-time unpaid internships. This has been a priority for the foundation since the founding of the program, and part of the reason our funding goes to nonprofits and the public sector is because we know budgeting for this can be a barrier for those organizations.

Stephanie Molnar
Program Officer in Leadership Development at the Cleveland Foundation
 

Where to Look for Support

Securing the initial funding for an internship can take some asking around, but there are both internal and external resources to consider. 

1. Re-Evaluate Your Current Budget

If securing funding for your interns is a priority, a good place to start is your current budget. Ask your board members to help identify areas where funding can be freed up for an internship program. Think critically about what current expenses may be lower once you have the intern support. Also take this time to talk to similar organizations, like TWLOHA, who have taken this step and learn from how they managed to shift resources.

We just recently changed to a paid intern program in hopes to remain a competitive program and broaden our applicant pool. In addition to compensation, we provide housing for the interns and the necessary housing supplies. Our leadership knows how vital our interns are to the success of the organization, and so it was a unanimous decision to move forward with a pay structure.

Amber Gardner
Intern Program and Partnerships Director at TWLOHA

2. Consider Community Foundations

The Cleveland Foundation’s internship program has been a model for other community foundations that have since followed suit, such as the Columbus Foundation. The DeKalb County Nonprofit Partnership also runs a similar program that combines resources across multiple nonprofits. It’s worth seeing if community foundations in your area have these types of programs. If they don’t, try reaching out to gauge their interest in starting one. You can point to successful examples, like the Cleveland Foundation, to help build your case.

A local funder might be open to, for what’s really a modest cost, moving forward an internship program that can make a big difference.

Stephanie Molnar
Program Officer in Leadership Development at the Cleveland Foundation

3. Look at Community Development and Revitalization Organizations

Some smaller cities are facing workforce shortages and actively trying to find ways to recruit more talent to the area. Internships can be critical experiences for encouraging students to move to these areas post-graduation. If there are agencies in your area focused on community and workforce development, ask if they’re interested in partnering with you on your internship program.

4. Partner With Local Universities and Colleges

More schools are starting to establish dedicated funds or scholarships for students’ internships. Talk with universities and colleges in your area to see how you could potentially partner with them through one of those funds. If interns are coming from out of the area, help them navigate those conversations with their schools to assist in securing funding for them if it’s available.

5. Tap Into Your Alumni Network

Once you’ve built up an intern alumni network, past interns may want to “pay it forward” and sponsor a future intern for a summer. Always stay engaged with your past interns and create an experience for them that they’ll be proud to support for incoming students.

How to Communicate the Internship Program’s Value

When approaching your board, community foundations, or other potential funders, you need to be able to sell the value of your internship program. In addition to the value it creates for the interns themselves, you can use these approaches to highlight how it creates value for your nonprofit and the broader community, as well.

Focus on Community and Workforce Development

Internships offer an opportunity to keep talent in your region. Stephanie shared that 62% of the foundation’s alumni stay in the Cleveland area after their internships, and 72% of those continued in nonprofit or public sector work. By investing in an internship program, the foundation is investing in the community by initiating meaningful career experiences for students.

I had an intern tell me this week that ‘I really didn’t know Cleveland had an opportunity that could be such a great fit for me.’ Other interns have told me that while they’re still not sure of what they want to do for a career, they’ve realized there’s a lot more opportunity in our area than they recognized. So, one summer can do a lot for talent recruitment and retention in your region.

Stephanie Molnar
Program Officer in Leadership Development at the Cleveland Foundation
 

Emphasize the Return on Investment

Interns help build capacity for nonprofits to move along projects they may not have otherwise been able to, and often at a lower dollar cost than other options. The Cleveland Foundation estimates that each intern provides services worth around $10,000 to their host organization for an average program cost of just $6,500. In addition, only 30% of their partner nonprofits say they could have hired the interns on their own without funder support.

Interns also assist internal hiring processes for entry-level positions as they come up. Kelly shared that interns who are hired on full-time have been found to stay with their organization longer and have higher performance ratings than other hires who weren’t interns. Your organization can save on hiring costs by selecting new staff who already know your culture and are passionate about your work.

It’s a long game. You might not see the return on investment tomorrow, but you have to think about the future of your organization. You have to ask, who do we want to have on our staff in the future? Do we want staff who will be committed, driven, and tied to our cause at a deeper level? Because internships really help build that future workforce.

Kelly Goodall
Lead People Partner in People Operations at Classy

Elevate Opportunities for Word-of-Mouth Marketing

Interns who have a positive experience at your organization offer an excellent opportunity for word-of-mouth marketing. When they return to their campuses, family, and friends, they’ll share your work with others who may then grow an interest in your mission.

The hope is your intern leaves with a sense of excitement and enthusiasm for what they took part in, and when they share that experience with others, that’s a part of your brand. That word-of-mouth brand has a huge impact. The cost of an internship versus the marketing cost to reach the same audience is a really good deal.

Kelly Goodall
Lead People Partner in People Operations at Classy

Highlight Hiring Opportunities for Funders

Funders who play an active role in an internship program can also benefit from recruiting future talent to their organization. Your nonprofit can share ideas with your funders on how they can be involved and how doing so can build into their hiring processes.

Not only does the Cleveland Foundation’s internship program connect interns to a variety of nonprofits they could potentially work for in the future, but the foundation itself is actively involved with the interns to demonstrate career paths with its organization. Stephanie shared that at least five summer internship alumni, including herself, work at the foundation today.

Demonstrate Connection to Internal Staff Development

Staff at your nonprofit who are earlier in their careers may not have frequent opportunities to gain skills in supervision. Interns can be paired with those staff to provide them with a first experience in a supervisory role, allowing for critical internal staff development. 

In addition, interns can add to staff morale and innovation by bringing in fresh perspectives to your organization.

I would underscore that internships create an enhanced experience for your internal employees. They add value to the work your internal staff does. Some staff get to test out mentoring or managing for the first time, and they get to learn new ideas from the interns.

Kelly Goodall
Lead People Partner in People Operations at Classy

Leverage Funding and Other Supports to Establish a Mutually Valuable Internship Program

Whether or not you’re able to currently pay your interns, there are concrete ways you can ensure your internship program provides them with a valuable early career experience. 

Even during the coronavirus pandemic, nonprofits and other organizations have found creative ways to offer remote internship opportunities. Both Classy and the Cleveland Foundation have hosted everything from social events to professional speaker panels over Zoom. TWLOHA is offering a flexible, part-time, and remote-based internship for fall 2020 that can better accommodate students. 

While remote internships can take a little extra planning and require more intentional focus on building a sense of community, they have some benefits to consider. Interns can save on housing costs by staying home rather than having to find short-term rentals in potentially expensive cities. Remote internships can also create lower costs for your organization since you won’t need additional office space or resources to accommodate the intern. These mutual cost savings can serve as an entry point for nonprofits just getting started with an internship program on a tight budget.

As your nonprofit is able to, reach out to potential funders to support your internship program. Build your case by communicating its value for your organization, the community as a whole, and, just as importantly, removing financial barriers that limit internship opportunities for those who can’t afford them.


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