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How to Find an Internship in Change

Craig Zelizer

August 14, 2017

This blog is part of PCDNetwork’s career in change 2017 series. Click here for information on all the activities, webinars, blogs and ways to participate.

Many students and aspiring professionals are interested in finding appropriate internships or volunteer work in social change to help develop their skills and experience. There are a number of suggestions that could be helpful in the search for a great internship that are offered below.

Before jumping into how to land an internship, it is first essential to discuss the pros/cons of internships. The pros is that internships can be an great way to build professional skills, gain experience, make new contacts, try out organizations and at times do meaningful work to advance one's career.  The challenges are many but include the unfortunate fact that the vast majority of internships are unpaid, that not all opportunities are created equal, and that it is possible to get stuck an the internship treadmill (doing multiple internships without landing a job in one's field).

One of the most controversial aspects of internships is that fact that most are unpaid. There has been increasing criticism of organizations working for change having people do work or tasks without proper compensation. This is especially true when students who are universities who may have to pay tuition dollars to their institutions in order to obtain university credits for internships. First, students are doing unpaid work, but even more unfair is they are actually paying (often hefty fees) to their home institutions to do unpaid work. The US Department of Labor (and most countries have stated policies) has criteria about what classifies as an internship, which may be helpful to read. The president of the Ford Foundation is one of the leading figures criticizing America's  "internship industrial complex". As he stated in a NY Times Editorial (July 5, 2016)..."TALENT is equally distributed, but opportunity is not. And while many Americans believe fervently and faithfully in expanding opportunity, America’s internship-industrial complex does just the opposite."

Some institutions such as Ford have made a stand and only have paid internship programs. But many institutions haven't made this choice. There is a fundamental challenge here both for institutions and for potential interns. Having hired many unpaid interns myself in the past, I know that for social change focused organizations that budgets are limited and there is always more work to be done. Thus it often isn't feasible (or doesn't appear feasible) to offer paid internships.  Moreover, there are often many people seeking to advance one's career and providing time-limited opportunities for people to work on specific projects can be beneficial to the person and host institution. I have also had people start as an intern and then move up into paid positions (this is an ideal outcome).

For people seeking an internship they can be an great way to address the fundamental Catch 22 hiring challenge. Many organizations are reluctant to hire people without the necessary experience for positions, but don't provide the opportunity to get the experience. Thus internships can be a great way to get more applied experience, to learn more about an organization, and potentially increase one's chances of being hired at the host institution or at similar organizations. But the challenge for interns is how does one support oneself while doing unpaid work, how to maximize the chances of finding a good placement/team,  and to not get caught on the internship treadmill.  An interesting debate was also started by a UN intern in Geneva who lived in a tent as a way to raise awareness about the issue of unpaid internships.

Each person has to make their own decision about the right path to choose. There are also many internship programs that are inundated by many hundreds of applications. Thus, at times landing an internship (at some institutions, not all) can be a major challenge. Also please note there is a formal technical difference between internship and volunteer positions (see the bottom of this post)

Here are the top 10 suggestions for finding internships (please feel free to add your own suggestions).

1) Develop a Strong Resume - Make sure you have a strong, clear and compelling resume and cover letter. See the many tips on developing an amazing resume from our Career Series. Many university career centers also offer guidance on resumes.

2) Read Key Resources - There are many excellent resources you can find online that can offer an overview of opportunities in different sectors, suggestions for how to frame your experience and reviews of potential placements. A few key ones


Idealist has developed an excellent guide to Volunteering.

The ACT Report, Skills, Networks and Knowledge: Careers in International Peace and Conflict Resolution offers guide to careers in the field based on interviews with over 60 organizations and practitioners (although the report is old it still has many useful tips)

3) Subscribe to Key Web and Job Lists - There are countless numbers of websites that provide resources on jobs and internships in the field. You should get on all or some of these sites as you will get daily or weekly updates of opportunities around the world. See the full guide to job lists in the careers section (many of which post internships) Some of the best sites include:

4) Use your contacts/networks - One of the key strategies for finding a internship is to consult your personal and professional networks. Let your professors, colleagues and friends know that you're seeking an opportunity and perhaps they will have suggestions/contacts. University career centers and alumni can also be terrific resources.

5)Join New Networks- Joining a professional network in the field can also be a useful way to make contacts and learn about opportunities. Some relevant networks include:

Alliance for Peacebuilding

Society for International Development


6) Find and Contact Organizations Directly - Often you can find great organizations and opportunities through your own research and identify/create your own opportunities. You can find also find opportunities listed directly on an organization's website. It is important to ensure that ensure that any organization you will work with is a legitimate organization (check with friends, see who funds them, visit their website, learn about their reputation). It is possible to contact organizations (particularly smaller ones) to let them know you're interested in their work and have skills (be specific) that you believe might be of assistance.

7) Explore Fellowship Opportunities - There are many excellent fellowships/scholarships that do provide funding for independent research/volunteer work/study. Thus, don't just think about internships as a way to get field experience, but look into ways you can obtain a fellowship and perhaps as part of your study intern with local organizations and/or conduct independent research. You can find many fellowships/scholarships on this site such as in our resource guide and the fellowships forum.

8) Explore Negotiating about Opportunities - While many internships are unpaid and an organization may not have sufficient funds, you may want to explore negotiating about the terms of potential internships. For example some organizations might be able to provide housing, while other organizations might provide training opportunities, or perhaps allow you to explore publication opportunities.

9) Consider Fundraising to Support Your Opportunity - Some universities may have funding opportunities to support summer internships/field work. Perhaps you can consult your relatives and ask for small contributions to cover your basic expenses or find other creative ways to fund your experience.

10) Additional Suggestions - What are additional suggestions for finding the best internship?

Difference between volunteer opportunities and internships

Many people do use the term internships and volunteer experience to mean the same thing. However, in general an internship is an experience one undertakes to advance skills in a particular profession. It is often part of an educational experience where students may undertake a professional experience in an organization to develop new skills, to make connections, to learn about an industry, etc. There are specific legal requirements  for what constitutes an internship as outlined by the US Department of Labor.

Internships can be paid or in unpaid, although in the vast majority of internships (unfortunately), they are unpaid.

While volunteering according to the US Department of Labor is ".. Individuals who volunteer or donate their services, usually on a part-time basis, for public service, religious or humanitarian objectives, not as employees and without contemplation of pay, are not considered employees of the religious, charitable or similar non-profit organizations that receive their service. Volunteering is often more about contributing one's time to a cause without the expectation of professional skills advancement. Of course there is often significant overlap between an internship and volunteer experience.

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