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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Where have all the interns gone?

The origin of the word “intern” goes back to the Latin and French meaning: to restrict or confine within prescribed limits, as prisoners of war, enemy aliens, or combat troops who take refuge in a neutral country. Currently an intern is thought to be an individual gaining practical supervised training in a hospital or an assistant or trainee working to gain practical experience in an occupation, generally an internship is a temporary and supervised position where on-the-job training is learned. The current narrative includes a person of little status, conducting menial tasks in hopes of gaining experience, letters of recommendations and potentially a permanent position with the organization.

Much like the term “community service” once thought to be voluntary, altruistic service to others in the community has changed and is now used as a term for forced service hours for breaking a law in lieu of or in combination with fines. Over time, the term “community service” has evolved to mean the individual did something wrong. The term “intern” has changed over time as well with horror stories of long meaningless hours doing grunt work, being taken advantage of and then turned away with no job in sight.

Legally the abused intern is gaining status by winning law suits and human resource departments are taking note. Although the laws may give rules and guidelines to follow, government entities and nonprofits are exempt. The discussion goes on and whichever side your organization takes, there is the perception that there is a line of students just waiting to work long hours, with no pay to gain experience. 

As the Senior Program Coordinator for Arizona State Universities’ Nonprofit Leadership Alliance, my responsibilities include supervising and placing senior internships, much like many undergraduate and graduate degrees require for graduation. This is a common call, “Hello, I am a development director for XYZ nonprofit organization. We have no money and only a few staff. We need an intern to work a few hours a week to help with mailings and data entry, the sooner the better.” “Number 83! Please report to XYZ agency STAT!!” as I call out to the line of students waiting out in the hall to be assigned. This is only what I say in my mind when speaking to organizations who do not understand the modern INTERN.

Student interns are few in comparison to the organizations that need them, want them and have no concept of how internships work for college students. On the positive side, organizations, large and small, can develop an internship program that meets their needs, the needs of the intern and continues to supply a regular stream of talented, passionate, innovative and prepared college students. There is no magic trick here. Plan for your internship program as you would for your fundraising needs, volunteer program or board development. Have a plan and they will come to you.


Post open positions to our internship board to find the best students available!
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A successful internship process should include:


Understand the school schedule. Colleges and universities have a calendar and student will usually follow that plan when looking for internships. There are part time and full time requirements. Be prepared for both. 

Provide one point of contact. Human resources, volunteer management or even, if possible, a dedicated staff member will streamline the intake process and be prepared to answer questions. On-boarding can be time intensive so much like new staff, have a prepared process that will prepare inters for any departments. Including time in each department is a sure way for students to see how they fit into the plan.

Post your internship opportunities regularly to degree programs matching your organizational needs. Colleges and universities are large and complex so they often work in silos and have their own rules, requirements etc. Get to know them and remember there is a steady stream of students every semester.

Use job descriptions but be flexible based on the needs of the student and what they want to learn. Students pay tuition for the class credits. Students want to learn from you and must pay for the opportunity.

Provide a consistent supervisor who understands that students are capable of more than menial jobs. Give them ownership and then be there to ensure they are on the right path. Include them in staff trainings and invite them to high level meetings. 

Value their time and level of experience. Much like volunteers, if they don’t feel valued, they will not view your organization in a positive light. There are students with extensive resumes and those just entering the workforce. Adapt supervision to their needs. Think of them as “extra minds” not “extra hands.”

Pay them. Students have part time jobs or full time jobs and often cannot financially manage to work without pay. This also eliminates the potential law suits. Much like hiring staff, your organization needs to be competitive if you want the best. Plan your budget to include minimum wage, a stipend, something to attract quality students and those who do not have the option of an unpaid internship. 

Word of mouth among and between students is the best marketing for your organization and continuing a stream of quality placements. Negative experiences will poison the pool of potential interns.

Organizations that continue to have successful internship programs see it as an investment in the future of the organization because:

  • Interns are potential staff members in training, future donors, volunteers, and board members.
  • Interns provide positive energy and new passion for current staff and continue to challenge them with new ideas, current research and extended networks. Senior has access to them as the voice of the next generation of leaders.
  • Internship supervision provides an opportunity for current staff to show potential for advancement.
  • Lastly…they are wonderful representatives for the work of the organization.

The modern internship is more an apprenticeship than an internment and as our terminology changes so too our planning needs to be more than a frantic call to the line outside the internship office. #83 has just taken a paid position which includes a dedicated supervisor, exciting work and potential for advancement and professional development. If your organization does not have a plan for interns, #83 will go elsewhere.

A third generation native of Arizona, Lyn is currently Sr. Program Coordinator for the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance (formerly American Humanics) at Arizona State University (ASU.) Lyn spent 10 years as Director of Project LEARN for Valley of the Sun United Way and Communities in Schools facilitating relationships with schools, business, government and nonprofits to better serve students living in poverty. As Director of Chapter Resources for the American Red Cross, Grand Canyon Chapter she supervised offices in five counties throughout Arizona. She is a trained facilitator, court mediator and certified to provide “Framework for Understanding Poverty” through AHA Process. She has a BA in Organizational Communication and is a Certified Nonprofit Professional (CNP.)


ASU Lodestar Center Blog