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The Sparking Controversy about Volunteer Internships

The Sparking Controversy about Volunteer Internships

Unpaid internships are wrong.
Unpaid internships are illegal.
Unpaid interns should claim back their pay.

These are the sentiments headlining the Web site of the UK campaign group Intern Aware, which further warns:

The UK is at risk of creating a society that throws on the scrap heap those who are unable to intern for free for long periods of time. Intern Aware campaigns for interns to be paid at least the national minimum wage, so all are able to afford to get the work experience they deserve.

This past May, the organization joined with the British trade union Unite in publishing a report calling for “an end to unpaid internships and the reintroduction of paid entry level jobs in the [third] sector.” Interns in the Voluntary Sector: Time to end exploitation, summarizes its main points as:

  • Unpaid internships are widespread in the third sector.
  • The legal uncertainty about volunteering in NMW  [National Minimum Wage] regulations is being used to avoid paying interns in the sector.
  • Internships are widely viewed as the entry point to third-sector jobs.
  • There appears to be a large difference in quality between internships, with paid internships usually offering a better experience, both for the intern and the organisation.
  • By not paying interns, third-sector organisations are excluding many high quality applicants, undermining ethical aims of the sector and equal opportunity in the economy as a whole.
  • The growth of unpaid internships has meant a reduction in entry-level paid work in the sector.

In the press release for the report, “No pay for charity interns’ breeds elitism,” Unite highlights the demand that “internships masquerading as ‘volunteering opportunities’ to evade paying the national minimum wage regulations should cease.”

At the very same time, however, we have seen an endless stream of stories about the value of volunteering for unemployed people seeking new job. And volunteer resources managers have grabbed onto the concept and terminology of “internships” as a great way to attract a wide range of new volunteers into roles that provide a degree of status and co-worker respect. Many students also prefer to be called interns rather than volunteers, again in the belief that the former implies more serious engagement.

Can both sides of this debate be right?

It is our belief that important issues are being raised in this debate and that they deserve the attention of the volunteer field. Regardless of your politics on the subject, it is quite clear that most of the current anti-internship campaigners are largely uneducated about volunteering itself – and this fundamental lack of knowledge only muddies the discussion further.  

International Debate

Do you think this issue is only surfacing in the UK? Not true. Type “internships + exploitation” into any search engine and you’ll discover hundreds of news stories, articles and blogs around the world on the subject, with the number proliferating rapidly. Here are just a few, whose titles tell it all (we have read all of these and feel they are worth a look) – and they come from the U.S., Australia and Canada:

Literally as we were putting this article to bed, a new blog posting  (July 11, 2013) appeared on the media-watching site, The Wrap; "Hollywood Intern Lawsuit Panic" gathers together many links to the current, successful litigation of unpaid interns against such diverse employers as Fox Searchlight (about their film, The Black Swan) and Warner Music Group.

Internships into Context

There was a time when the word “intern” was used mainly for doctors-in-training. Over the last 50 years, however, the concept has widened to include many different training experiences in nonprofit, government and for-profit settings. Some internships are formal requirements through university courses, others are totally individual to the intern and the host organization. Some are paid (medical interns are considered staff), others are remunerated through stipends or living expenses,and many are totally volunteer.

Internships also vary in the number of hours worked per week and the number of weeks involved. Much of the current controversy surrounds full-time internships lasting three months or longer, though the term is applied as well to things like student placements for one or two days a week for a semester. Therefore, when blanket statements are made about the exploitation of all interns, the criticism affects less intensive unpaid service – what we would clearly see as volunteering with a student-centered purpose – as well.

While the debate in the UK is presently focusing on internships in charitable organizations, many of the more egregious cases of exploitation occur in for-profit businesses, most notably in the arts and mass media. These companies normally employ people for money because they, in turn, help the business to make money; unpaid interns in the for-profit sector form a unique group of workers who also contribute to making money for the business but without remuneration to themselves. (It is interesting to note that this same issue is being raised about “student athletes” whose skills on the playing field generate huge revenues for universities but who do not share in this bounty beyond scholarships and an often tuition-free education.) 

Nonprofit and government organizations, of course, are mission-driven and already recruit many volunteers alongside employees. In these settings, student internships are either extensions of volunteer engagement or come with a stipend, living allowance or low wages, putting interns into a middle-ground worker category. This model is a common form of service, described as volunteering, in the UK via Community Service Volunteers. Indeed, when the UK’s National Minimum Wage legislation was being drafted, the concept of a “voluntary worker” (neither employee nor volunteer) was incorporated to protect this very model of service from claims by participants from NMW.

There is no standard definition of the term “internship,” even within the same industry or country – which is a big part of the problem. The Unite/Intern Aware report led to discussion in Parliament on June 18, during which Jo Swinson MP (East Dunbartonshire, Liberal Democrat) commented:

I want to touch on the issue of definitions, which has come up in the debate. Although the word “intern” is a bit of an import and is not clearly defined, “worker” and “volunteer” are...basically, if someone is offering their time of their own free will and they can come and go as they please, they are a volunteer, but if they are required to perform specific tasks and can be disciplined if duties are not performed as agreed, they are a worker. Each instance depends on the facts of the case, but that is clearly set out, both for employees and volunteers, and for employers or organisations offering opportunities, so that they are able to understand what category they fall under.

At first glance, most e-Volunteerism readers will bristle at this seemingly simplistic – and quite unfair – relegation of volunteering to casual and undisciplined activities. But in fact, Swinson was referring to actual employment and minimum wage law in the UK. An excellent summary of the British distinctions between “worker,” “volunteer” and an important third category of “voluntary worker” can be found in “Volunteering – do something meaningful with your spare time,” posted to the UK site, Freelance Advisor, on  August 25, 2011.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s rules and regulations regarding internships identifies six criteria for legal unpaid internships:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment;
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern;
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff;
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

Again, these criteria are almost infuriating, as they position the work done by interns as totally unimportant to the mission of the host organization. More to the point, none of the above reflects the valid and critical role that volunteering plays in organizations, when it’s done right.

From Whose Perspective?

In its FAQs on volunteering and internships, Employment4Students (UK) responds to the question, “Are internships paid?” with this answer:

Generally yes – legislation for this has changed in the last few years and not everyone is clear on this (including employers!). Employers are legally obligated to pay all interns at least the minimum wage, unless the internship falls under the following categories:

  • If the internship is doing voluntary work for a registered charity
  • If the internship is simply "work-shadowing"
  • If the internship is part of your course of study

The sources quoted in the previous section generally do not even acknowledge how often students are required to do an internship as an academic requirement – a privilege for which they actually pay tuition as well as give time. Employment4Students does draw the distinction, as well as the use of internships for career exploration.

There are various constituencies and motivations at play in this controversy. Whether an internship is wonderful or exploitative depends on whose perspective we take:

  • Students required to do some academically-related field work or wanting to do some reality-testing of a chosen occupation
  • Young people seeking entry-level jobs
  • Unemployed mature adults needing to find new paying work
  • Anyone looking for a meaningful way to contribute their talent and time to a cause in which they believe
  • For-profit businesses needing low-level help
  • Nonprofit and government agencies seeking volunteers to fill many different types of roles, including expertise of all types, at all levels
  • Universities wanting placements for their students, both as part of service-learning programs and jobs for graduates
  • Formal, full-time service programs such as AmeriCorps, Community Service Volunteers, United Nations Volunteers, and Jesuit Service Corps, all of whom seek funding for at least the living allowance of their full-time voluntary workers
  • Labor unions whose priority is the creation or preservation of paying jobs
  • Taxing authorities who need to assure consistent compliance with minimum wage and other tax laws

Consider which stakeholders you represent – and which parties are aligned against all forms of volunteering beyond internships per se. Also note that the first four perspectives have the right to choose whether or not to take a non-paying position for reasons they value.

Why Some Unpaid Internships Deserve Attack

The issue of choice is central to many of the opponents of unpaid internships. They point out that young people, especially, face a very limited paying job market. Hazel Blears MP (Salford and Eccles, Labour) opened the June 18 discussion in Parliament with this accurate description of what many young job-seekers face:

Unpaid internships are rife in some industries. It was right to have highlighted some of the positives, particularly in the creative industries and others, but in those industries, young people are so desperate to start their career and get on the ladder that they often feel they have no other choice than an unpaid internship. The cycle is dismal: if someone wants to work in the fashion industry, for example, they must have experience before applying, and the only way to get that experience is to work in the industry for nothing. Even getting their foot on to that first rung of unpaid employment is not easy, and it may be more about who they know than what they know. Those are the key issues in this debate.

Personal stories (bad and good) of real interns are creatively portrayed in an online publication from the CBC, Intern Tales – Stories from the front line of lines of unpaid employment.

All internships are not equal. And we cannot defend those that: exploit the young adults seeking them; do not provide the training or professional development promised; take away paying jobs; or benefit recipient employers by skirting minimum wage and/or other labor laws. We sympathize with the argument that unpaid internships exclude those who are unable to work full-time for free, effectively discriminating against all but the more well off. This results in contributing to limited social mobility and reducing the pool of potential interns (and by extension future employees) available to the sector. We also share the concern that internships requiring full-time hours over many weeks begin to look much more like jobs than volunteering. The same is true for internships that remain the same year after year, filled by a replenished set of new volunteers, rather than creating the most suitable placement for each intern candidate.

In the UK and elsewhere, charitable organizations are struggling to meet rising demand alongside falling income, and it is true that some work previously undertaken by paid staff is now being done by volunteers in the belt-tightening process. Entry-level jobs in particular are subject to displacement. There has also been an increase in levels of unemployment among university graduates in the UK, with concerns expressed about how difficult it is for people to get a first paid job anywhere, but particularly in the nonprofit sector.

We are particularly concerned about employers who intentionally look at interns as a cheap labor pool. There are even jokes about this practice, and movies such as The Internship (set at Google) or The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (Bill Murray openly says he’ll get volunteer interns to do his dirty work) further perpetuate the loser or dead-end image of interns. Anyone in volunteer management should be willing to fight against calculated exploitation of someone’s willingness to volunteer or desperation to do anything that might lead to a job.

The Unpaid Work Research Report issued by the Australian Government Fair Work Ombudsman office summarized it well on the section of its Web site about volunteering:

A business and person can’t simply characterise what is actually an employment relationship as volunteer work simply by labelling it as a ‘volunteer arrangement.’ Whether it is a genuine and legitimate volunteer arrangement will depend on the details of the situation, in particular whether or not there was an intention to create an employment relationship. An unpaid work trial, or other type of work, can’t be disguised as a voluntary arrangement.

Determining whether a volunteer arrangement is genuine will depend on the individual circumstances of each arrangement and can involve complex legal issues.

Let’s Not Throw the Good out with the Bad

We are all for identifying internships that are really jobs. But we are very concerned at wholesale rejection of any such unpaid training as expressed in this June 12, 2013 posting to Scientopia (about the American biomedical research industry), “Unpaid internships are a systemic labor exploitation scam - yes, in science labs too:”

Unpaid internships are a labor-exploitation scam.
In any industry.

This is an inflammatory statement that feeds the philosophy of “any work that is truly needed should be paid” and the suspicion that there is no such thing as really wanting to volunteer for any cause at any time.

To be fair, there are some critics who are calling for a more balanced view. Eric Reed, in “Are Unpaid Internships Mere Exploitation?” (, July 3, 2013), comments:
The data seems conclusive and the result seems not only inevitable but also intuitive; even college students deserve to make their rent. Yet data that seems conclusive on the surface can mean something very different once you start to pick it apart, just as it does here.

It's a problem of missing the trees for the forest or, in other words, deciding that because some of the picture looks bad, all of it must be. According to Philip Gardner, director of the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University, condemning unpaid internships altogether misses the real point.

"There's different reasons that students get involved with unpaid internships," Gardner said. "If they're good internships, whether they're paid or unpaid, if they're designed well and its working for the student and employer, then both sides gain from it."

The problem with the recent media blast against all of these programs is that it throws away the good along with the bad. I'll be the first to say that many of the unpaid internships out there are not only exploitative but also deeply illegal. However many are genuine opportunities for students to learn, grow and get experiences that they otherwise never could have had, and the data just is not one size fits all.

Our point exactly!

We don’t want anyone who cannot afford to live without a source of income to feel excluded from a valuable internship – just as we agree that those who need enabling funds should get out-of-pocket costs reimbursed for any type of volunteering.

But is cost to the intern a reason to scrap internships altogether, particularly in nonprofit and public agencies? Surely a much better approach is to educate organizations to provide a better intern experience and find ways to provide at least living expenses when interns are expected to work full-time.

And what about those people who can afford to do unpaid internships and actually want to do them – should they be prevented from doing so? Wouldn’t this result in simply excluding a different group of people from these opportunities? 

Sound advice is given by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (UK) in a free booklet, Internships that Work: A guide for employers (2009), quoting from the website for the Graduate Talent Pool, a recent UK government initiative aimed at helping graduates find work: some circumstances, employers may wish to offer unpaid internships. Before you decide to offer an unpaid opportunity, make sure you have taken account of the guidance on minimum wages. It will then be for graduates to decide whether the benefits of taking up the internship outweigh the fact that it is unpaid.

We also want to make the case that the nonprofit sector is based on different values and principles than the private sector. Charitable organizations fund themselves by asking for money from donors; why is it wrong to also ask for donated time and skills? While we are never in favor of replacing employees with interns or other volunteers, it is the obligation of a nonprofit to stretch its available funds as far as possible to maximize client services. In the same vein, government operates on tax revenue; if taxpayers are also willing to give volunteer service to programs they care about, can that be wrong? Only if your sole perspective is jobs over everything else.

The Support-of-Volunteering Perspective

For our field, the ultimate questions are: What mind set should we bring to the subject of unpaid internships? Do those who advocate banning such internships really believe that no one should do any unpaid work under any circumstances?

We can join forces against outright exploitation of unpaid jobs, while still championing the value and necessity of volunteering done right. Specifically:

  • Monetary payment is never the determinant of quality. It is possible to develop strong volunteer roles and set high expectations for them, and the people who volunteer can be held to professional standards. Government guidelines such as the ones quoted above in the U.S. and the UK should be challenged for attempting to legally codify unpaid work as meaningless to the organization. It’s insulting and contradicted daily. Don’t we expect surgeons who spend their vacations doing needed operations in developing countries to use all of their medical skills, even if they are doing the surgery as volunteers?  Do we let volunteer firefighters “do their own thing” while houses burn down? Aren’t nonprofit board members volunteers with ultimate authority? When such examples are raised, the problem is that too many policymakers counter with “those are different volunteers.” Why? 
  • The best volunteering is an exchange of benefits, win-win-win. Even if government and labor unions want to define unpaid internships as useful only to the intern (though why meaningless activity is useful to anyone is a mystery), we know that volunteering is most valuable when the recipient is well served, and the organization increases its capacity, and the volunteer gains something, too.
  • Volunteering, whether or not called an internship, can be designed to allow an individual to be more employable. Not every volunteer activity can or should lead to a paying job and not every volunteer wants one. But if someone of any age expresses the desire to use volunteering as one element in a path to paid work, organizations should honor that goal by matching that person to the most appropriate volunteer vacancy, or by creating a volunteer role to give the person the chance to explore/learn/test employable skills and interests. This is circular, in that making sure every volunteer is properly placed results in a motivated and loyal corps of volunteers giving the best service to clients.
  • It is not self-evident that having a paid job is better than volunteering, nor that the two are mutually exclusive. In fact, we envision a world that has 100% employment for those who want it and 100% volunteer involvementto “round out” individuals and for the good of society. For students or anyone without much work experience, volunteering actually provides a better way to learn skills and take on important roles. Susan has long said, “Volunteering allows people to rise to the level of their abilities, not their credentials.” Solid unpaid internships give young people the chance to do a level of work for which they would never be hired to do at that stage of their careers. (But this only holds true if the activities rise above go-fer.)
  • Volunteering is a right. In a free society, citizens have the ability to work on behalf of any cause they wish. Organizations are not obligated to accept anyone who wants to volunteer, but each person can decide to join with others or work alone on things that matter to them. If someone feels forced to do an unpaid internship because there are no other options, we agree it is not volunteering. But if someone freely chooses to donate services to a cause, even for an intensive period of time, who has the right to tell him or her they cannot?

Where Do You Stand?

Where do you fall on the spectrum of reactions to unpaid internships? What can you do to advocate for volunteering done right? Here are a few ideas:

  • If your organization has volunteer roles it calls “internships,” examine them to see if they pass muster both legally and ethically. Help clarify the definition of “intern” and “volunteer” in your setting and stand up for volunteers.
  • Read Susan’s 2004 Hot Topic, Interns: The "Acceptable" Volunteers? and consider how you approach volunteer – or intern – work design.
  • If you live in an area where this debate is heating up, join in the discussion!  Send a PDF of this article to your legislator. Post responses online to statements you support or dislike. Inject the word volunteer into the mix of opinions.

We look forward to your responses to this article and to opening debate here in e-Volunteerism. Stay tuned – more lawsuits are pending.

To add or view comments

Fri, 08/02/2013
We in Australia are struggling with the similar problem. The federal government, has update the Fair Work Act in relation to internships. Part of the challange is that they have left a massive gray area, the examples they give of what not to do are in for-profit industries. The examples of what you are do are in not-for-profit industries but they do not spell out what you can and cannot do. Also, you cannot just rename the role to be volunteer, because if they are doing the same job as an intern did. This still could be wrong. Our organization stands by Best Practice (according to Volunteering Australia), with our volunteer/internship/work placements being no more than 16 hours a week unless required for school/university/government requirement. I look forward to further comments.

Sat, 08/10/2013
I agree wholeheartedly with the support-of-volunteering perspective at the end of this article. Simply condemning unpaid internships is narrow-minded and shows a lack of understanding. It does not reflect well on labour unions to align with a campaign against unpaid internships. Not only does payment not determine quality but it may, raise doubts about participants' motivation, consider the effect of payment on religious ministers, mercenaries, prostitutes? Fighting over moral high ground is unseemly - to borrow from Schreier we should be one-tribe now surely.

Mon, 08/19/2013

Since Rob and I wrote this Points of View, protest of unpaid internships has continued to grow and make news.  Here are a few examples:

Again, these may be situations in which pay is legitimate, but none of the articles advocate for any type of volunteering at all.  We better stay alert.

Tue, 08/20/2013

Disturbingly, even more anti-volunteer publicity has emerged today.  Rob Jackson just sent along a new article in Third Sector Daily (UK) continuing to throw labor union logs on the fire of the paid vs. unpaid intern debate. 

Read the story and think about its implications.  It is VERY serious because the emphasis on “all important work should be paid” is totally anathema to volunteerism.  Yet Rob and I note the almost total absence of response from the volunteer management field.  Where are the peak bodies?  Where are the professional associations?  (Those are, I’m afraid, rhetorical questions).    We’re letting the labor unions steal the debate.  And what about those surgeons who volunteer to do operations in developing countries.  “Should” they be paid?  And what about all the push towards “pro bono” work by business people? 

We cannot allow ourselves to be bullied by people whose only interest is paying jobs.  Yes, we should fight exploitation when it occurs and some internships are not volunteering.  But look at the dismissal of any "volunteering" as unfocused, undependable and unimportant.  It's plain wrong.

I’m very concerned here. What about the rest of you?

Mon, 03/16/2015
Readers may be interested in the new guidance from NCVO in England on volunteer internships. This guidance is introduced by Justin Davis Smith (former CEO of Volunteering England) in an excellent blog post - The guidance itself can be accessed via a link at the end of Justin's blog.