ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Current nonprofit sector research and recommendations for effective day-to-day practice from ASU faculty, staff, students, and the nonprofit and philanthropic community.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012 - 10:17am
posted by
Colleen Dunbar,

Project Specialist,
ASU Lodestar Center  

One piece of advice that aspiring nonprofit professionals should consider is to participate in an internship program. I’m in the public relations/communications/marketing industry, and internships were not required in either my undergraduate or graduate degree programs, but speaking to professionals in this field, they are definitely encouraged. I have since had the opportunity to work at multiple nonprofit organizations as an intern, where I learned what I was good at, improved on many of my skills, and learned what makes a good internship program.

You can do it!...

All of the organizations I interned with had faith in me. They all gave me fairly substantial responsibilities that would have a public impact on the organization. Press releases, social media, and websites were just a few of my responsibilities, all of which are highly visible, and nowhere in my work did they put “made by our intern.” The fact that the organizations trusted in my abilities enough to hand these responsibilities off to me boosted my confidence level immensely — which is really important for someone who is in his or her first real career-related job.

An intern is not someone who is there just for you to pass off the tedious, boring projects that you don’t want to do (okay, I did get a few of these, and I accepted them with a smile on my face!). I really felt that these organizations wanted to use my talents to advance their missions, instead of just putting me in the dreaded coffee getter-photocopier-paper shredder role that so many of my fellow marketing students were subject to.

…but not like that

I call myself a “give and go” learner: give me a responsibility, show me how you want me to do it, let me go and try it on my own, and then tell me how I did. Some of the organizations I interned with were really good at the first three steps, but not so much with the feedback part. Not to say that I didn’t receive any feedback — because I did — but it was not always consistent. I did a lot of writing in these positions, and all of my work was edited before it was published. Sometimes I would see the final article or post, and I could see the edits that were made, but sometimes I wouldn’t see the final draft at all. Without feedback, I could have been (and probably was) making the same mistakes over, and over again, which would have made extra work for the staff who was editing my writing.

I wanted to work for these organizations because I wanted to learn from them — as is the case with most interns (especially the unpaid ones). Although I did take away a great deal of knowledge from each experience, I wonder how much more I may have learned with just a little bit more feedback. Positive feedback and constructive criticism are powerful tools, and they can greatly increase an intern’s level of efficiency, confidence, and their repertoire of knowledge.

It’s all about who you know

The organizations I interned with for allowed for great networking opportunities. At one, I worked with graphic designers, videographers, and program managers, and I even ate lunch with the CFO a few times. At another, I had the opportunity to work directly with every department, and I really got to know my coworkers well. One of the most exciting and memorable opportunities I had, however, was attending a very large professional networking event on behalf of my organization — by myself — during my second week in the internship. It was great!

In the public relations industry that I am striving to enter, having a substantial professional network is really important, and these organizations presented some incredible opportunities for me to meet other professionals.

Why does this matter?

Internship programs give young adults the opportunity to test out different industries, organizations, and jobs, so having a positive experience in the internship program is really important. The fact that these nonprofit organizations treated me so well, at such a young age, and with such little prior experience outside of the classroom, helped shape my career path. I plan on working in the nonprofit sector for a long time.

Colleen Dunbar is a project specialist in the ASU Lodestar Center's marketing/communications department, and is currently completing her master of arts degree in communications studies at Arizona State University. Originally hailing from Vancouver, Canada, Colleen is striving to make a difference and give back to her community through a career in nonprofit public relations. Connect with Colleen on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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Click here to read Brittany Miner's post, "How Organizations Can Find, Train, and Utilize Interns."


As a student who will be starting her senior internship next year, this post speaks to everything I've ever wanted to tell nonprofit organizations and more! As students, we are attempting to prepare for our future careers and internships are such a valuable piece of that. I always hold my breath when starting a new internship in hopes that the organization understands that I'm truly there to learn about the sector and the inner workings of their organization; not just to get someone's coffee. I have been fortunate to have had many positive experiences interning in the sector thus far. The one thing I think nonprofits should realize is that we, as interns and students, can bring fresh perspective to an organization. We are so anxious to share and apply all that we're learning in the classroom! Give us meaningful tasks and let us brainstorm! Let us feel independent in our work but be there to support us and keep us on the right track. I think that once organizations understand this, we will see a transformational change not only in the professional development of interns but also in the inner workings of nonprofits everywhere.

Thanks for your comment, Alex! I completely agree with you when you say that, as students, we can bring a fresh perspective to our organizations. In the past, I would be hesitant to bring in new ideas or to suggest any changes too early into my internship, for fear of stepping on toes. Now, however, I've come to learn that the worst thing that could happen is they say no! In school, we have the chance to learn, not only best practices, but to discover new tools and trends that could make our jobs easier. So I say: speak up and share your ideas! It will only make you that much better.

I really enjoyed reading this blog. It speaks to a multitude of different aspects interns should seek when entering into an internship for any organization. I come from a background of military related fields and will be graduating next fall with a B.S. in Tourism Development and Management; and two certificates in Special events management and Convention and meeting planning. I aspire to be a convention and meeting planner for international businesses. The problem I've run into with regards to securing an intern position with a Professional Corporate Event Planning agency is having a frame of reference from other students whom have interned with the same organization. I hope to not get stuck in the coffee runner-photo copier-paper shredder role. It's a bit nerve racking to apply (especially for un-paid positions) for an internship that doesn't have positive feedback from previous interns. An internship is vital in breaking into the industry and should provide a quality experience that is both challenging and rewarding.

I really enjoyed reading this blog! I am a Junior in college and looking for an internship in my field of study. Although I am not a nonprofit student, I am a hospitality mananagement major, this is great advice that you are giving. Right now, I am not currently looking for an internship but next year will be the time when I will be searching. So, reading your blog on interning really was interesting. I 100% agree with you that finding job opportunities is all about networking and knowing people and that's what I have been trying to do; just meet people. Landing an internship will be a huge step in my career after college and it will be a great experience. Thank you for posting such a great blog!

As a student who has also done internships recently, I agree with you on how good it feels to be given responsibilities without much of a guarantee for the organization. The greatest thing about internships though is they get you out of the classroom for some first-hand experience!

Thank you! This was really good for me to read because I am about to enter into my senior internship. I really enjoyed hearing about your experiences because it has reassured me that everyone has the same fears I do. This is a great tool for students!

Wow, Thank you for this information! Being that I am required to have an internship for my entire last semester of school before earning my degree, this blog is very valuable to me. I love your "give and go" learning concept. I think that all four steps are very important and the last one is vital! I have been in many learning situations where poor or rather lack of feedback has discouraged me to continue my learning in that environment again. I will definitely communicate this concept to who I am interning with so that I can insure a positive and beneficial learning environment for both the organization and myself.

Colleen thank you very much for your perspective. Although I am a senior pursuing a career in a different field, I have no doubt your insight is relevant to all career paths. I would also like to add - and direct to future interns - not to be concerned whether and internship is paid or not.

There is so much more value to an internship besides monetary value. An internship is what you make of it and, in my opinion, if you are solely concerned with how much you will be compensated, your mind is already in the wrong place and could very possibly make for a bad interning experience. As someone who has completed multiple internships, I've learned that they can teach you so much about yourself that you did not know and introduce you to the skills required to be successful in your field, as Colleen stated. That can prove to be far more valuable in an interview than temporary monetary compensation.

Or, you will never know what kind of contacts you will make that can open the door for you for more prestigious internships.

I encourage all interns to approach this experience with an open mind, ready to learn about yourself and make as many contacts possible.

I have not done a professional internship yet, but my senior internship at ASU is fast approaching! I think the lack of experience to be hired as an intern makes me nervous and unsure if I will be what businesses are looking for. It was nice to read that your internships provided you with great opportunities that were guided and explained. The networking that you were able to do as an intern was surprising for me but also insightful to potential opportunities out there. Overall your blog gave me a better idea of what it will be like to be an intern and what I can expect. I'm more excited about my potential internships!

The only work experience I had going into my first internship was school. Most employers understand that people who apply for internships (especially students) have little to no work experience in that field. That being said, you are in school and currently learning new and best practices in your industry, and that is a form of experience. When applying for internships, highlight the classes you have taken (or are currently taking) that apply to the position, and create a portfolio out of your best assignments - it worked for me!

I couldn't agree more that money should not be the focus of an internship. The most valuable positions are the ones that teach you, help you grow as an employee, and help direct your career path.

Thanks for pointing that out, Marco!

This is a very good point. I completely understand your hesitation in applying for, or accepting an internship where you have not heard feedback from past interns in that program. I did not know any past interns at the organizations I worked for, however, I always knew the organization fairly well, and had a past relationship with them, so I trusted their internship programs. I would recommend researching the organizations you are applying for, and possibly volunteering at one of their events before (if possible) to see how they function from the inside.

Either way, I wouldn't recommend turning down an internship just because you haven't heard feedback from past participants. Just try to make it clear in your interview exactly what you want from the internship, and how your skills and abilities can help advance their mission. Good luck!

Colleen, Thank you for your advice. As I am approaching graduation in the spring next semester, internships are always on my mind. I've been doing a lot of research for different types of internship programs because as everyone knows, internships have unpaid and paid internships. I have had two internships thus far with a chamber of commerce and a local grassroots nonprofit and both had a completely different feel to it. The one for the grassroots nonprofit didn't really give me anything to do and just called me when they wanted advice or they had a new idea. It was not the best experience because I felt like I wasn't given anything to do and there was no structure. I don't even put it on my resume because I feel like I haven't done enough for the organization to be able to say that I was an intern. But I am exactly like you where if I am given a responsibility I will go and do it and if I don't know how to do it then I'll learn. I think that that is extremely important in internships because the experience is meant for you to learn.

I am applying for internships next semester just because I want to get my feet wet before I graduate so hopefully all will work out. Thanks for your post!

Your experiences show the importance of finding a strong internship program, and an organization that fits (or at least assists with) your professional goals. Maybe this grassroots organization did not completely or clearly define their internship expectations, or maybe that is just how they run their internship program, but either way it doesn't sound like they helped advance your career, or teach you new skills - which is (in my opinion) the fundamental purpose of an internship.

Your experience also brings to light the difference between a volunteer position and an internship. Maybe the grassroots organization just needed a volunteer, but framed the position as an internship, but I see these as two very different experiences.

I think this is a message that all inspiring interns should read: If gaining career experience or learning a new skill are your main goals of applying for an internship, make sure the organization(s) you are applying with can support them before you commit to the program.

Thank you so much for your insights, Erin, and I wish you the best of luck in your upcoming internship search!

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