The Chronicle of Philanthropy interviews Empax about summer interns

  • June 8th, 2009 by Kathleen

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Recently, our fearless leader, Martin Kace, was interviewed by the Chronicle of Philanthropy for an article about summer interns.

Teaching the Class of 2009

How nonprofit groups can get stellar work from summer interns

By Michelle Gienow

In a time of tightened budgets and slimmer staffs, many organizations will rely more heavily than ever on the energy and extra hands of summer interns.

But interns also present challenges, often stemming from their inexperience. Thoughtful preparation, say both nonprofit managers and educators, is essential to ensure that internships work well for both students and employers,

To start, both charities and prospective interns need to approach the arrangement with the seriousness that would be given to a full-time position, says Mary Tschirhart, director of the Institute for Nonprofits at North Carolina State University, where undergraduates pursuing a minor in nonprofit studies are required to do internships.

“The students prepare a proposal that shows that they understand the nonprofit and its mission,” says Ms. Tschirhart. Furthermore, she adds, “the charity has to understand that they can’t treat this lightly.”

Factoring in Flexibility

Such agreements help avoid potential conflict between students and their hosts. But, she adds, any agreement should also leave room for flexibility if the charity’s needs change. “We’ve had internships where a supervisor leaves or gets laid off, or a program ends,” says Ms. Tschir–hart.

Managing expectations is key to a successful experience, says Wendy Fox, executive director of Pelican Harbor Seabird Station, a charity in Miami that rescues and rehabilitates injured wildlife.

“Before anyone sets out to use interns, I strongly urge them to write on a piece of paper all the reasons why they need interns and how they expect to use them,” says Ms. Fox, whose organization hires two full-time interns each summer to help mend some of the 2,500 injured animals it aids each year.

“You have to be clear about what you want the intern to do for you so that intern can be effective at their work,” she adds.

Following are other suggestions from managers — and from some former nonprofit interns as well:

Set the right tone from the start. And make sure the process for training is clear to all. For small organizations like AfricAid, a charity in Golden, Colo., that works to help girls in Tanzania obtain an education, taking valuable staff time to conduct intern orientation can be a challenge, says Ashley Shuyler, the group’s program director.

But the group says it was well worth the time it took to put its training process in writing.

Decide how much autonomy interns will be granted. “If you set them a task and they complete it, but not in the way you would do it yourself, are you prepared to let them do it a different way?” asks Ms. Fox.

Meet regularly with interns. “Have regular check-in meetings,” suggests Dana Murphy, director of education and outreach for the conservation group Friends of the Chicago River. “Time can go by really, really quickly, and checking in from the very first day develops rapport where the intern is comfortable asking questions and especially asking for help. Because if they’re not, you get to week eight and they present something that’s not what you expected because they didn’t know what was expected.”

Set goals. “That way they are working toward something specific, and that really helps in terms of getting the most from a student,” says Ms. Murphy. “If they are personally responsible for a project, especially if they can pick it — I try to have a number of appropriate projects an intern can choose from — that goes a long way toward accountability.”

Dona Anderson, senior program associate for Homes for the Homeless, a social-services charity in New York, says, “I find it’s most successful when we have a specific project that we develop together with the intern. That way there’s a deliverable, if needed for college credit, but also it gives them a longer-term goal to work on in addition to doing other short-term or tedious tasks that also come with internships.”

Thankless chores, Ms. Murphy notes, are part of learning about nonprofit careers, too. “One thing all interns should realize is that almost every job entails some administrative work, what they might call grunt work,” she says.

“As a director I still do it,” she notes. “So as an intern, yeah, they’re going to do it too.”

Treat interns like employees. Martin Kace, chief executive of Empax, a nonprofit communications and graphic-design firm in New York dedicated to helping other charities successfully market themselves, says including interns in all aspects of operations is important.

“From the moment they walk in here, they are full-fledged team members, he says. “The main way we get the most out of interns is to say, ‘OK, you’re a designer now.’ We invest them in the organization by giving them the responsibility and status of anyone who works here.”

Ms. Fox takes a similar view. “Our interns are involved in every aspect of what we do on a daily basis — it’s a real live hands-on situation,” she says. “Interns start off doing the basics while we teach them a variety of skills, but it’s a very rapid progression. Young people are excited — they come in just wanting to go, go, go.”

Caitlin Mulcahy, who graduated last month from Creighton University and is the veteran of two nonprofit internships — at the American Cancer Society and at One World Community Health Center, both in Omaha, says students appreciate that approach.

She says, “Students want to feel respected and see that the employer believes we are capable of contributing to the organization — and we are.”

Expect youthful missteps. Employers of student interns agree that most arrive ready to give the position their all, but, lacking professional experience, they may make errors.

Inappropriate clothing, a too-casual writing style, and too much time spent on personal calls and the Web are among the problems that employers often encounter with their young helpers. When problems with intern behavior arise, Ms. Murphy of Friends of the Chicago River advises a direct approach as soon as possible.

“If we are noticing that there’s maybe a little too much time spent on Facebook or personal e-mailing, it’s usually just a short conversation that we have to have, and the earlier the better,” she says.

When intern infractions require intervention, Ms. Murphy says, “we always couch it as, this is a learning experience and we know nobody’s perfect, but we’re not in college anymore and here’s some tips that will help you as you move on in your career.”

She adds: “It’s your responsibility as a supervisor to see that the intern goes off with those skills, and that reflects well on the organization.”

Offer good role models. Interns will follow what other employees are doing. Ms. Murphy says that, before seeking to correct an intern’s actions, it is a good idea to “look around and make sure you are modeling what it is you want them to see. Interns do take cues from their employers.”

“Employers have to realize that it is often a big adjustment for a student, stepping into the professional world,” says Ms. Mulcahy, the recent Creighton University graduate. “It helps a lot to know what is expected.”

Give students varied assignments, but ask one person to supervise them. Sara Beimfohr, who graduated last month with a bachelor’s degree in economics from Franklin & Marshall College, in Lancaster, Pa., worked as an intern last year at an organization where she hoped to apply what she had studied in her economic-development classes: the East King Improvement District, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the quality of life in an impoverished neighborhood of Lancaster.

Ms. Beimfohr helped coordinate a weekly farmer’s market the charity had started to bring fresh, affordable produce to the area. “I worked on everything from analyzing statistics about who was using the market to the layout of stalls,” she says.

Having one supervisor instead of several, who worked closely with her and gave her real responsibility, made a big difference, she says.

“I did my fair share of mindless tasks as well, but seeing my employer was willing to let me gain experience by working on my own was beneficial.” says Ms. Beimfohr. “I completed that internship saying, ‘Wow, I learned so much,'”

“If employers can balance giving students that meaningful hands-on experience with other, ‘less interesting’ tasks,” she adds, “they will likely see much better work in both areas.”

And that may hold the key. “College students are paying a great deal for an education that they are hoping will take them into interesting and engaging career fields,” says Ms. Beimfohr. “By interning we are hoping to get an inside look at what it is like to work in that sector, and we want to provide real service while we are there.”

Jennifer C. Berkshire contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2009 The Chronicle of Philanthropy

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