The intern debate: four lessons from Green Alliance

The moral and practical dilemmas around internships are one of the hardest issues to manage if you run a charity. It has required soul searching, time and planning for Green Alliance to resolve them and through the process we’ve learnt a few things.

The moral case against unpaid internships is laid out very well by the campaigning organisation intern aware. There are two principle arguments: first, that unpaid internships exploit young people desperate for work experience; and, second, that they lock-in privilege by excluding those who can’t afford to work unpaid.  Inevitably, most of the media debate has been led by stories of rapacious businesses exploiting young workers, but the issues for charities are less well explored and are distinct.

At Green Alliance we have set up a new paid graduate scheme to replace our voluntary internship programme. Here are four things we’ve learned along the way:

1. Unpaid charity internships need not be exploitative
If you are leading a charity with a public interest mission the first objection above should not apply if you run a good scheme that gives committed young volunteers a chance to learn how to make a difference. Charities have an exemption from the minimum wage legislation precisely because they are the vehicle society has for people to volunteer their time to good causes. A hotel chain using unpaid interns is exploiting them, but a refugee charity allowing unpaid interns to support its work helping homeless migrants need not be. That is certainly our experience at Green Alliance where our previous unpaid intern programme has not just benefited our sustainable development mission but also provided many formative experiences for the participants.  Having had an early taste of environmental policy making and influence, many of our former interns are turning up at our events years after leaving and remain part of Green Alliance’s network.

2. Unpaid charity internships are not compatible with equality of opportunity
This is the crux. Equality of opportunity is a huge and growing issue in the UK, particularly in London where rising housing costs are hollowing out the city and making it even harder for young people to get on the jobs ladder. When we switched to our paid graduate scheme, we increased the pool of applicants six fold and 600 young people felt it offered them an opportunity, even if only five could be successful. That’s proof that unpaid internships were restricting access to the first rung of our ladder, and it’s why we have moved to the new model. We have a privileged position in the environment sector and a responsibility to be as open as we can in making the learning we can offer accessible.

3. Equal access is important but comes second to charitable purpose
Charities have a responsibility to be as accessible as they can be, but their primary duty is to ensure they are carrying out their purpose for the public benefit, as defined by their charitable objects. This means that trustees have to ask a utilitarian question: how does paying interns further our charitable purpose? Any positive impact then has to be weighed against the other things the charity may no longer be able to afford. If you are running a small charity which uses volunteers to help provide meals to the destitute, would it be right to reduce your budget for food to tackle the unfairness of your staffing policy? The Charity Commission guidance says no, your beneficiaries come first.

It is rare for the trade-off to be so stark, and for most charities it is possible to marry the ethics of access with the ethics of their charitable mission. But it is not always straightforward and it took us 18 months to arrive at a solution, once the decision was made to switch away from unpaid internships.

It costs us £95,000 to employ five graduates on the London Living Wage. Because staff costs are our dominant expenditure, paying for this new scheme would normally mean losing other staff. After some head scratching we found a way through by being able to grow the organisation. As it was junior staff where we had the biggest capacity gap we could satisfy ourselves that creating a paid graduate scheme would increase our effectiveness, as well as align with our organisational values.

4. Paid internships are not just fairer but better for the host organisation
It’s too early to evaluate the effect of this change on our impact, but the omens are good. We have a cadre of confident and clever young people who are able to commit wholeheartedly to the organisation. They all have more academic qualifications than I do. Because they are with us full time for a year, rather than part time for six months, we are able to invest more in them and provide mentors and professional development training. Our unpaid interns were just as impressive but, by necessity, they had to juggle shifts with other part-time work, and would frequently be offered paid work which ended their time with us early.

We haven’t eradicated inequality of opportunity because, to select the best candidates for a think tank, we favour educational achievement over other virtues. Those with the money or the debt appetite to study for a masters tended to do better than those with only a first degree, and we favoured those who were intellectually articulate above those who might have had less opportunity to practise such skills. Nevertheless, we have overcome one significant financial barrier to entry.  Given that we are helping to create future environmental leaders that feels good and important.

One comment

  • Hey, Is My Internship Even Legal?

    What a great read! It’s always good to see an organisation putting the intern first. Point number 4 is especially pleasing! There is a mutual benefit in internships which too many organisations neglect to recognise.

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