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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."