In my many years working for small NGOs, I have often come across organizations that do not make optimal use of their interns and volunteers. Ensuring that interns and volunteers contribute to the organization means a lot of hard work for the organization’s core staff. It is important to assign one or two core staff members with the responsibility for guiding and managing interns, planning their daily tasks, and making sure that interns don’t simply sit at their desks wondering what to do next. Very often, unsupervised interns find themselves doing monotonous tasks and quickly lose motivation.
NGOs must remember that interns and volunteers are precious resources not only because they don’t draw salaries for all the hard work they put in, but also because they can bring valuable energy, skills and expertise to the organization.
It is therefore the NGO’s responsibility to ensure that interns and volunteers have a fulfilling experience in the organization. In return the NGO must set high expectations from interns, motivate them and give them feedback in order to attain their internship goals. Here are some key points to bear in mind:
Be clear about expectations: It is important for the organization to be clear about what it expects from its interns and volunteers e.g. if a social media intern is expected to help around the office during an event such as a fundraiser or gala, by stuffing envelopes or moving boxes, make this clear. The intern/volunteer should not be taken by surprise or be annoyed with the task assigned. It is alright to tell a potential intern or volunteer assigned to a particular department such as social media, fundraising etc.: “We need help from our interns and volunteers during events as we don’t have a big staff.”
Respect your interns and volunteers: Set high expectations and motivate interns and volunteers to deliver their best. Do not have the “she’s just an intern” attitude; respect the individual for applying to your organization and for giving their time; value them.
Demand discipline: If an intern/volunteer is not performing her tasks properly, a polite correction is recommended. Do not hesitate to demand discipline from interns and volunteers; your NGO has given the opportunity to the individual to gain valuable work experience and skills, and it is alright to set standards.
Be interested in your interns and volunteers: it is essential to make interns feel welcome and comfortable. Get to know your interns, their interests and goals, and their expectations from the experience in your NGO. Once this is done, tailor tasks according to the organization’s needs as well as the individual’s capacity. Matching the intern to the work task helps the organization and intern set targets and work together to achieve them.
Share the load: If the core staff is busy, don’t hesitate to share the workload with interns and volunteers; they are there to assist the core staff e.g. if the fundraising officer is busy writing a proposal to meet a deadline, ask the intern/volunteer to help prepare the necessary application documents, or start a file for the application. With proper instructions and training, interns and volunteers can achieve much more than expected.
Follow the Law: Make sure that you are in compliance with all national legislation concerning labour conditions and visa regulations. Where applicable, e.g. if the intern is undertaking the internship for academic credit, also make sure you comply with the requirements of the academic institution. A written agreement that outlines legal issues and expectations is also useful.
If the NGO’s core staff and management make a concerted effort, interns and volunteers can become a great asset to your organization.