Equity in Internships – The Pipeline of Privileged Hiring in Non-Profits

By Sarah Ushay
July 12, 2020

Summer has fully descended upon us, and if we were in any other world situation, companies around the country would be welcoming their summer interns into their offices. For recent college graduates looking for their first full time role, these internships populate their resumes and remain there for the first couple of years in the professional workforce. Internships have been a longstanding tradition in the young American professional pipeline, and for many entry level roles, there is an unspoken requirement of internships on a resume, and non-profits are not exempt from that.  Non-profits have a history of systemic staffing challenges, from minimal c-level positions being filled by BIPOC, white savior complex, to lower paying salaries. As members of the non-profit community, we hear a lot of conversation about how we can develop a staff that is more representative of the communities we are serving. Hiring practices in non-profits have a lot of areas for growth and their entry level hiring practices are a key place to start.

Non-profits and internships programs: a complex relationship

For non-profits, an intern can be a saving grace. With razor thin budgets and staff wearing multiple hats, an intern’s extra hands support everything from filing paper and research projects to event support and fundraising, all in the exchange for work experience and connections. While some internships do fulfill the promises of enriching work and networking, internship programs historically are underpaid or unpaid experiences, with only about half of internships being paid roles. Internships are disadvantageous against young adults from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, typically BIPOC, who are unable to take on an internship in place of or in addition to other financial or familial responsibilities.

Even more so, higher profile internships or “shadowing”  have a history of being influenced by family connections, further perpetuating the lack of equity in the internship experience. This bias in experiences can have longer lasting effects on organizations which run internship programs and tend to look to previous interns for open entry level positions at their organization. When we are looking to hire entry level roles, by eliminating those without internship experience, we are creating a barrier to entry that disproportionately affects lower socioeconomic applicants. Additionally, the padding of resumes with internships can lead to higher entry level pay for those having “more experience”, further perpetuating the system of BIPOC receiving lower pay then more privileged counterparts.

So what should non-profits do? Consider this:
For those hiring entry level roles:
  • Educate your staff on unconscious and cultural bias 
  • Understand the historic privilege of interning 
  • Refine your organization’s hiring values (try a culture deck
  • Provide transparency in all role descriptions, including clear expectations on experience and salary range
For those running internship programs:
  • Advocate for paying your interns fair wages 
  • Consider reducing the hours of your internship to allow for interns to seek employment outside the internship hours
  • If you typically recruit for entry levels roles through your internship program, reexamine how you recruit and screen for your internship program in a way that reaches diverse audiences

Sarah Ushay is a philanthropy fangirl. She is a manager at a national education equality foundation, with a background in educational programming, advocacy, and management. She is based in Queens, NY.
Connect: Sarah.ushay@gmail.com

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