Should Nonprofits Drop Unpaid Internships, Too?

With a major publisher choosing to end its unpaid internship program rather than pay current and former interns for their work, the issue is raising a new round of ethical questions. At least one commentator argues that unpaid internships go against the missions of many nonprofits.

With a major publisher choosing to end its unpaid internship program rather than pay current and former interns for their work, a new round of ethical questions about these programs is emerging. At least one commentator argues that unpaid internships conflict with the missions of many nonprofits.

Is the unpaid internship going the way of the dodo?

If so, what does the trend mean for nonprofits? A recent decision by Condé Nast is sparking new discussion of the matter.

The latest issues: Unpaid internships came into sharp focus over the summer due to a series of lawsuits—most notably one against the filmmakers behind Black Swan, who lost the case. The issue is gaining new traction now because one of the companies sued over its unpaid internship practices, magazine publisher Condé Nast, recently ended its internship program altogether, according to Women’s Wear Daily, one of its publications. Current interns will continue until the end of their terms, but the company will not bring in new ones.

Strong reactions: The Black Swan and Condé Nast unpaid internship programs both drew scrutiny and sparked action. The suit against the filmmakers actually spurred an internship program: The Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit news startup ProPublica began an ongoing investigation into what it dubs the “intern economy,” tracking lawsuits and questionable practices by companies that rely on unpaid interns. (Practicing what they preach, ProPublica pays its interns taking part in the program.) Condé Nast’s decision, meanwhile, drew media criticism: Fortune questioned the move to drop internships entirely; ThinkProgress‘ Alyssa Rosenberg suggested that the company loses secondary benefits—such as the opportunity to prescreen potential employees. “The cancellation of the internship program is a defeat for everyone, and the numbers suggest that it won’t necessarily be a financial game-changer in an industry that faces much larger challenges,” Rosenberg wrote.

What nonprofits should consider: At least one critic in the nonprofit space argues that paying interns is simply the right thing to do. In a piece for Nonprofit Quarterly, InternMatch cofounder and Chief Marketing Officer Nathan Parcells argues that unpaid internship programs, especially for charitable nonprofits, put organizations at odds with their own missions. “Your organization’s very purpose is to help the less fortunate,” Parcells states. “But by offering unpaid internships and benefiting from the work of numerous interns, you’re actually putting students and recent graduates into an unfair situation. You’re only opening the door to those potential interns who can afford to take on an unpaid opportunity, adequately gatekeeping your interns as determined by their socioeconomic status.” However, the National Association of Colleges and Employers, which has released research showing that paid internships are more likely to lead to full-time jobs, acknowledges that nonprofits’ circumstances differ from those of for-profit companies. “Unpaid internships in the not-for-profit sector reflect the fiscal realities and limitations for organizations in that sector and are acknowledged accordingly in current Department of Labor guidelines and enforcement practices,” NACE writes in a policy statement on the matter.

One interesting angle in the current saga comes from the online comments section of the Women’s Wear Daily story, where reaction was mixed—with many defending the value of unpaid internships.

“I was skeptical at first that I would have menial tasks and feel taken advantage of, but I was wrong,” one former Lucky intern said about her experience.

Condé Nast, which owns Vogue, among other magazines, announced it would end its intern program this week. (photo by szeretlek_ma/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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