Using interns to augment staff

Interns can help your organization extend its reach without increasing its staff budget. Interns are much more than just free labor; they can also contribute their creativity and energy. You can provide an excellent opportunity for interns who want to acquire specific job skills, and who want to learn about nonprofits more generally. If you already take on interns, you can probably improve your program.


Before you embark on creating an internship program, be sure an internship program will really work for you. Consider:

Will you have time to oversee an intern (or interns)? A smart, skilled intern will not require hand-holding, but you will still need to commit some up-front time training a new intern, and some ongoing time to answer questions and oversee your intern. A good, well-chosen intern can help lighten your load, but if you can’t even spare a few minutes to get someone started, taking on an intern won’t be practical.

Is there real, meaningful work for the intern? Most interns want more than just a learning experience – they want to know they’re making a genuine difference for your organization. They’ll be unhappy if they feel they’re doing make-work. On the other hand, while interns may be willing to do grunt work all day, you won’t be making the best use of them if you don’t give them a chance to stretch their wings by making full use of their skills. They can contribute more if you give them something they can take responsibility for.

Are the skills and positions you’re looking for appropriate for an unpaid intern? If you are looking for a position that requires a lot of expertise or confidentiality, you may be better off hiring someone.


There are lots of universities looking to place interns. Finding prospective interns can be fairly easy, but you’ll want to make sure you go about the recruiting and interviewing process the right way – this can make the difference between finding a great intern and ending up with a slouch (or at least someone who isn’t a match for your organization).

Creating the internship descriptions: Think about each skill and/or position you need. Although you may want an intern (or interns) to come in with multiple skills (e.g., social networking, marketing and web design) and fill several roles (e.g., marketing and communications), we recommend preparing an internship posting for each separate skill or position. One of us once found an excellent community outreach intern through a posting for a business development intern. We don’t think the intern would have been as interested if we had tried to combine all the job functions into a single posting.

In your internship posting, explain (1) what an intern will do with your organization, (2) what expectations you have of the intern (including skills they need to have), and (3) what experience and skills they will gain as a result of the internship. Interns are particularly excited when you can offer them a real learning experience over the course of their internship.

Recruiting applicants: Sacramento City College, Sacramento State University, and University of California, Davis all have internship programs. Each has its own posting procedures. The best interns may also come from art, music and performance programs at each school. You can contact each department directly, or ask the internship program at each school to connect you to the appropriate person in each department.Respond to applicants: Create a standard email response to applicants with more detailed information about your internship, and about what you will expect of them. Ask them what they hope to get out of the internship, and ask them to provide any information you need but don’t have yet, such as a writing sample or job references.

If you will have very limited time to interview interns, you can take steps to filter applicants before the interview stage. Keep in mind that these steps may filter out people who would make great interns – these cannot substitute for an actual interview. They can only help you reduce the number of applicants to a manageable number.
  • Focus on internship programs in which an internship advisor can help you find an intern who matches your particular needs (such as the Sacramento City College program). Call each program to ask how much they will be able to help you find an intern to suit your needs.
  • Ask questions by email before setting up an interview to ensure applicants have the skills you require, and can commit the time you need them to commit.
  • Include more required skills in the internship description, and in the standard email you send to applicants.
Interviewing candidates: It’s important to make the interview seem like a bit of a big deal. We have sometimes handled intern interviews casually, but found that interns we accepted didn’t always take the internship seriously. How an intern enters an organization has a lot to do with how she performs once hired. Let candidates know that there are others also seeking the position, and that you have high expectations.

You should consider giving applicants a short test of skills that are particularly important to you. If an intern needs to be an excellent writer, prepare a short prompt for applicants to respond to. We once brought on an intern who had submitted a very well-written writing sample, and we figured we didn’t need to administer the in-interview writing test. He must have had a lot of help on the essay he submitted, because we found out soon after hiring him that his writing was horrendous. Another intern’s excellent writing was the determining factor in my decision to hire her. You can also create tests for skills like design (they could sketch a flier design), Microsoft Excel (they could sort and reformat a document you have created), or HTML (they could write some HTML for a snazzy new homepage for your organization).


There are ways to catch a new intern up to speed without killing your own productivity. If you don’t want to regret the whole intern experience, it’s important to take some of these steps to save yourself headaches.

Create training materials: Spend some time creating instructions for how to accomplish various tasks interns will have to complete on a regular basis. A shared set of Google Docs ( is probably the easiest way to share these sorts of resources. A set of word documents on a shared computer drive is also very easy to create and manage. Time invested up front creating instructions will pay off many times, especially since interns sometimes need to refer back to instructions multiple times as they get the hang of new tasks. (The alternative is being prepared to explain the same thing over and over again.)

If you have a microphone, it is extremely easy to record and narrate “screencasts” (videos of your computer screen) to show how to do certain things. There are many websites that allow you to create a screencast for free (such as, without requiring you to download software. If you can record these videos without revealing proprietary information, you can upload them to Youtube for easy reference, and link to them from your written instructions.

Rely on the expertise of veteran interns: If you take on more than one intern at a time, veteran interns can be an excellent training resource for greener interns. Interns generally enjoy sharing their expertise and knowledge with trainees, and they learn more through the teaching process than they otherwise would.


If you go about recruitment and interviewing well, you will make your management job considerably easier by choosing someone who does not need much hand-holding. This does not mean that you won’t need to manage at all, though. There are several important principles and techniques for managing effectively.

Prepare in advance: Create a list of projects and tasks your intern(s) can work on. Interns will quickly lose enthusiasm for an internship if they feel underutilized – even faster than if you give them nothing but grunt work. Make sure you can keep your interns busy and productive.

Create teams of interns: If you take on more than one intern at a time, form them into a team (or teams) to work together on projects. This increases morale significantly, encourages mentoring by the more experienced intern, and stimulates the interns’ creativity and problem-solving abilities. They will solve more problems on their own, and you will spend less time answering simple questions.

These teams can be cross-functional (e.g., including people with different skill sets, such as a designer and a business major), but they need not be if you have multiple interns from the same background.

Assign responsibilities, not just tasks: Interns want the opportunity to take responsibility for a project or goal, and will best be able to exercise their creativity and skill if you give them some freedom to decide how best to accomplish their goal. In one of our offices, we assign intern teams a project to accomplish. We consult with them initially about how best to accomplish the goal, then ask them to discuss it, and come back to us with ideas of their own. We often find that they have thought of things that hadn’t occurred to us. We expect them to report back to us frequently about their progress so we can make sure they are on track, but are often pleasantly surprised to find that they have made more progress than we expected them to make.

Assigning responsibilities requires some trust, and it is best to ease into this practice by first assigning projects that are a little bit forgiving of errors and missteps.