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5 Ways to Make the Most of Your Nonprofit Interns

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Update 07/07/2017: This piece has been updated to include further actionable advice as well as newly acquired perspectives based on reader feedback.

Fetching coffee and taking out the trash seem like stereotypical tasks for an intern, but in the overall scheme of an internship, these menial requests are skills that any minimum wage job could provide.

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The dictionary definition of an internship is “a temporary position with an emphasis on on-the-job training rather than merely employment.” There isn’t much that fetching coffee can teach except developing an ability to obey orders. That is, unless you run a Starbucks and that’s the actual  reason you have interns.

Nonprofits run off of a donation-based budget and must make the most of every dollar they collect. Therefore, learning to make the most of your interns is a must. Your interns can help finish large projects in a timely manner, help facilitate events, and reach out to constituents to create enthusiasm for a new cause. But without the proper treatment, your interns won’t be of much use to you.

As a former intern, I’ll share my experiences below, to show how you can help your interns provide the most value possible for your nonprofit.

1. Identify Strengths and Weaknesses

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Would you hire Tim Cook to coach the New England Patriots or put Bill Belichick in charge of Apple? Of course not. The Patriots would end up at the wrong football game after using Apple Maps, and Apple would start deflating the tires of every Microsoft employee.

All kidding aside, those two have their strengths, and obviously, they have their weaknesses too. Belichick may not be as adept at being a CEO (unless he cheats), and Tim Cook is probably not NFL coach material. Interns work the same way. Each intern comes from a different background, and thus has different strengths and skills to offer.

Before an internship begins, you should determine what an intern hopes to get out of the internship and what specific skills they bring to the table.

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Some internships are geared specifically toward certain skills, but many are just general internships, which require a meeting of this kind. If your current intern needs require someone who’s adept at number crunching, it would be best not to bring on interns with an artistic background, and vice-versa.

If they aren’t sure where their strengths lie, there are resources that can help you determine their strengths. The Strengthsfinder book and test assess the strengths and weaknesses of your employees, including your interns. This and other assessment tools are the perfect way to start that conversation on where your interns’ skills may lie.

Once you’ve identified the strengths of your interns, you will have a better idea of where to place them, whether that is working on a new project, working in development and donor outreach, running your social media, or blogging for your nonprofit.

Forcing interns into areas where they are not likely to deliver is never a good policy. You would think this is common sense, but speaking from personal experience in my internships, consideration for these skills is not as prevalent as it should be and leads to trouble down the road.

2. Treat Your Interns Like They’re a Part of the Team

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Many interns apply for specific internships due to their passion for the issue the nonprofit is involved in. In my experience, it takes more than just a passion for the mission to keep any employee, including interns, engaged with your organization. If interns don’t feel like they belong in the organization they are working for, that passion wears off quickly.

It’s no mystery, the higher the morale of your employees, the higher their productivity. One way to destroy the morale of your interns is to treat them as outsiders and peon workers there to complete the tasks that no one else wants to complete.

Try hosting team building exercises with both employees and interns. These activities will help your new interns build relationships with your employees, as well as improve their communication and problem solving skills.

Team building activities (click the link for further activity information):

  • Zombie Escape: Creative problem solving activity—escape a room by solving puzzles to find the hidden key before one team member zombie is let loose.
  • Battle of the [Air]Bands: Team bonding—organize your air band, rehearse your song, and perform your song. Teams vote on winners. Props encouraged!
  • Office Trivia: Team bonding—an easy activity involving organized teams answering work-related trivia questions.
  • Marshmallow Spaghetti Tower: Creative problem solving/collaboration exercise—using only dry spaghetti, masking tape, one yard of string, and a marshmallow, teams will construct the tallest tower they can.

It’s important to help your interns fit in and make them feel like a part of the team, it gives them and their work a sense of importance.

Invite your interns to events and activities with the rest of your organization, include them on major projects, and give them important and meaningful tasks to complete. Giving them a sense of importance and purpose, rather than assigning them lowly, busy work, will lead to a better work ethic and more motivation from your interns.

No one likes to feel like an outsider, interns included.

3. Be Flexible and Understanding with Your Interns

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After all, these are interns and not seasoned employees. What were you expecting?

More often than not, your interns are just getting their first taste of working in a professional setting, and they may not be accustomed to your standards. Interns can be just like high school freshman on the first day of school: new to everything, cringeworthy, and armed with A LOT of questions. The mark of any true supervisor is their ability to work with new or difficult subordinates and direct them in such a way that will lead to their success.

Interns are just learning their strengths in the work setting, so their first choices for responsibilities may not turn out to be what they thought. Being flexible and allowing interns to try out different aspects of the organization will help you develop an intern team that will provide the most value. In the meantime, they will make mistakes, it is only natural.

I learned very quickly during my first internship that logistics and spreadsheets were not my specialty, but writing and graphic design stood out as my biggest strengths. It is that revelation that actually led me down the path to what I do today at Capterra! Flexibility in the past on the part of my supervisors is what helped me find out exactly what I wanted to do for a career.

4. Provide Encouragement

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Similar to making your interns feel like they are a part of the team, providing encouragement is a key component to keeping up morale.  Interns will inevitably make mistakes, so in order to keep up productivity, you should encourage and support your interns.

Insecurity on the job and fear of failure (or being fired) undermines performance on the job, leading to deteriorating morale and even personal health. For interns, this feeling is amplified by the fact that they simply don’t know much regarding the work they’re being introduced to. That’s why encouragement from their management is so important.

Does that mean you should follow around and coddle your interns? Of course not. But when they make honest mistakes, you should provide your interns with the positive outlook they will need to succeed.

Rather than harshly reprimanding interns for mistakes, turn those situations into learning opportunities where you can embolden them to do better in the future.

5. Incentivize

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No one gets up in the morning and goes to a temporary job that pays very little (if anything) simply for their health. An internship is meant to be a learning experience for the future, but sometimes even that isn’t enough to motivate interns to put their best foot forward every day.

Providing your interns with incentives for accomplishing tasks is a simple and easy way to maximize their productivity.

When I was an intern, something as simple as a prize for recruiting X amount of people to an event, or a bonus to make X amount of phone calls made all the difference in job performance. As an intern, it’s harder to see the benefits or long term gains for the organization you’re working for, compared to short term benefits for a job well done.

Potential rewards for hard work:

  • Treat interns to lunch
  • Cash bonuses (if you can afford it)
  • Invitations to special events (galas, projects, etc.)
  • Certificate of achievement
  • A handwritten note of appreciation

Even simple incentives such as a professional reference to a future employer can help motivate an intern to put their best foot forward. In the end, an internship is meant to teach new skills and open the door to a future career. A willingness to help open those doors can give your interns that extra boost they need to deliver on the tasks at hand.

More on interns and nonprofit management

What was your best experience with your interns and what made that experience so great? What did you do to bring the best out of your interns? Be sure to let us know in the comments below!

Here at Capterra, I write about everything there is to know about the nonprofit sector, from nonprofit software to the most recent trends. Learn more about nonprofit management here:

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About the Author

Nick Morpus

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Nick Morpus is a Content Writer for Capterra, a free resource that matches buyers and sellers of business software. He has a background in politics, economics, and journalism, which he dedicates his off-time to contributing his thoughts to other political sites. In his free-time he enjoys reading, drawing, photography, playing guitar, writing, and cooking.

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