Thursday, October 17, 2013

Intern Fair Wages and Grassroots Nonprofits

I've been thinking a lot lately about my field and the over use of unpaid internships.

I'm so divided.

Let me back up. As a feminist, I believe that people have a right to a fair, living wage for their work. I'm appalled by income disparity. I'm appalled when I think about the fact that some people's 40 hour week of work is so greatly devalued that they can't even afford rent in their area. I'm appalled by the fact that unpaid internships are routinely abused. (And let's not forget certain legal protections are denied to unpaid interns.)

I see this abuse as particularly egregious when used by very large and wealthy nonprofit organization or for profit enterprises, where there is truly no excuse not to pay any staff.

Also as a feminist, I'm concerned that unpaid internships provide further advantages to students who are already economically advantaged. Students who pursue unpaid opportunities often have parents or other support systems which allow them do this. Other students (which I imagine are disproportionately low income, students of color, single moms, etc.) don't have that option and miss out on the "entry" level opportunities because they can't work for free. So while Student A, from a theoretical upper/middle class family, might spend 25 hours a week gaining valuable social work skills embedded in a nonprofit, her low income classmate, Student B, might need those same 25 hours a week to work in retail. Student B thereby graduates with one less, very social-work-career-applicable bullet point on her resume than Student A. If all other qualifications are equal, who's more likely to be hired for a social work job come graduation day?

I mean, from personal experience, I can say I was privileged in the nonprofit field by being able to take an unpaid internship. I've had to work to pay for things I need since I was 16, but I did not have to pay my own rent until 21. For the last 4 months before I began paying my own housing costs, I took an unpaid internship. Because of my performance as an intern for that semester, I was rolled into a paid part time job at the nonprofit. This was the foundation of my career path. Had I been paying my own rent just a few months earlier, I know I couldn't have dedicated 20 hours every week to any endeavor that wasn't my school work, my paid job, or sleeping. My current life might look very different right now had I not the luxury of pursuing an unpaid internship for a semester.

So I am very aware of all of this and I truly am concerned about the standard use of unpaid internships. I remember seeing an ad circulating recently where some news source or another (I can't remember which!) posted something like a 35 hour/week copy editor position as an unpaid internship. People were (rightfully) pissed on Twitter because it was pretty clear that the news organization had taken a mid level-ish position and made it an unpaid internship.

It sparked a lot of productive discussion online. I remember reading Tweets from several people that were really upset at nonprofits, in particular, for being so reliant on unpaid internships. Another community event I attended recently brought up this topic when we (as the audience) were surprised and pleased to hear that the staff was dedicated to paying a living wage to their interns.

So yes, I certainly see the need to pay interns. But as a nonprofit professional, who is trying to raise money to pay already overworked and underpaid core staff, I can't help but understand why it is happening. Many nonprofits, like the ones I've worked at, are extremely grassroots in nature. In those conditions, you usually have staff who are overworked and underpaid (since social work and nonprofits are highly aligned with women, they are devalued jobs, ya know.)  That means every new dollar in the salary line item is already requested to be put to use in a 100 different ways.

Frankly, thinking about paying interns isn't even in the discussion when you are trying to raise enough money just to retain your current staff. Or you have staff who haven't received either a merit based raise or a cost of living pay increase in a few years. Or you have part time staff whose work load demands full time hours, but because of budget constraints, you keep them at part time status and thereby serve fewer clients, limit that person's take home pay even more, deny them benefits, and make it difficult for them to keep up on all their responsibilities. Beyond all this, there are rising healthcare costs for the full time employees in your benefits line item. None of these challenges even begin to touch the fact that nonprofits struggle to offer competitive salaries to attract the best candidates for each job in the first place.

In my experience, most nonprofit managers are like myself. We deeply want to do good in the world and the last thing we intend is to take advantage of others. But we are desperately working to do a lot with so little and difficult decisions must be made with the best information available to us. The result is that for better or worse, nonprofits go the route of unpaid interns. It's very easy to do, especially because there are plenty of qualified candidates willing to apply. And because so many nonprofits rely on these interns, many of us did the time in the unpaid trenches ourselves, so it can be seen as a rite of passage. (However, as we all know, just because something has been the modus operandi doesn't mean it's right.)

I throw all this out there to demonstrate that the solution is NOT as clear cut as "just pay interns!" for grassroots organizations. Too often the discussion of this topic turns to this reductionist view. There is so much more to consider.

But obviously, something must be done. I have a few ideas that I think could help things move in the right direction:

1) Cultural shifts: The way I see it, three cultural shifts must occur,
(a) Nonprofits should more greatly value intern work
(b) more funders should embrace intern salaries as a worthwhile cause to support and
(c) we should all refocus on what internships are intended to be.

Because (most) nonprofits exist to serve a social justice/charitable purpose, it stands to reason that we should be thought leaders in this area. I think that, no matter how small the budget, we must at least take steps toward prioritizing some kind of pay for EVERYONE who works for the organization. This might start as something small (like an end of internship stipend) and can go all the way up to full living wages. As mentioned, this not only the right thing to do, but it will also open up internship opportunities for more people of diverse backgrounds. The second cultural shift that must occur is more public support for salary and administrative line items. Too many funders do not understand that these costs are critical to programmatic success. Restricted gifts to very narrow line items (like only funding client meals or transportation) put nonprofits in difficult positions, where there might be more materials goods available than people to oversee/administrate them. Nonprofits don't have the flexibility to make creative decisions (like funding intern stipends) if they don't have donations which can be used for that purpose.

The final shift I mentioned, often gets lost in this debate. We need to remember what interns are...they are students. They are learning new skills and they need a safe, supportive space to do that, where they will receive feedback and coaching. They are not (or at least shouldn't be!) coffee fetchers. Yes, they may perform some more mundane administrative tasks, but overall their duties should be aimed at the opportunity to learn and gain experience. There is something to be said for organizations allowing otherwise underqualified people the space and supervision to productively gain trade-specific knowledge and experience. To that end, I can see how paying interns less than the organization's normal pay rates can make a lot of sense. They will be receiving a lot of tangible benefits beside pay, like the experience, coaching, or school credit. If an intern supervisor is doing her job correctly, she will be spending a significant amount of time on coaching/supervising. That's not the same as hiring a new full time employee who should pretty quickly lessen the collective workload of the department. So, theoretically, the fair market value of intern work would be less than that of staff work (but it still has a value.) It's common sense.

Ultimately, interns cannot and should not be replacements for staff members, especially when they are unpaid (like that example I described above from the Twitter discussion.) Those situations are at best unethical, at worst have questionable legality.

2) Understand the differences between organizations: I don't think we can equally demonize unpaid internships across the board. As mentioned, to me, it is very different for a grassroots nonprofit to offer unpaid internships than it is for a large nonprofit, or worse yet, a for-profit company. The latter seems flat out illogical. If a company is bringing in millions of dollars, why should anyone work for them for free? Or worse yet, feel they have to work for free for a semester or a year if they want to make it in their chosen field.

I do understand the impulse to speak out against unpaid internships for all the reasons listed here so far, I think one can do so while still being sensitive to the financial constraints that small nonprofits struggle under. Some of my favorite small nonprofits in Austin can barely support 1-3 staff people, so they rely heavily on donated time from both interns and volunteers. With such a small staff it's extremely difficult to receive enough name recognition to get to all the donors you need in order to expand your budget. While I would want these nonprofits to think about how they can compensate interns in some creative way, I can't help but understand how there simply isn't the money there for more wages.

3) Get involved! For those who are able, progressives should support grassroots nonprofits that align with their personal beliefs. I think I've made it abundantly clear that without better (sustainable) funding, this situation cannot improve. That is the bottom line. If you feel that nonprofit internships should be paid, donate what you can to nonprofits that pay interns. Encourage your friends and family to give and volunteer. You could even join the board of a local nonprofit and helping enact change/policy/fundraising from the inside.

Fair wages for interns at nonprofits is not an issue that we can expect will simply improve because want it to. Nonprofits thrive and struggle with the ebb and flow of public support. If people in the community feel that this need must be addressed, then they must help the nonprofits address it. 501(c)(3)s are called public charities for a reason. We need you.

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