Internships With Non-Profits and Associations
By David Liss
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, June 25, 2004; 12:27 PM
So you want to change the world, live and work in the Washington area and step onto the road to professional greatness. Be an intern! Visit exciting places, meet interesting people, learn the political process first-hand, gain important job skills, and do substantive professional work. Oops almost forgot, you also get to photocopy, collate, staple and get coffee for your boss. Yesss! This exciting world of endless possibilities is yours for the asking and the taking.
While you don't have to live in Washington to intern for an association or a non-profit, you probably have a better shot at it if you do. Currently, there are over 3500 associations employing more than 75,000 people in Washington, DC, Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland, says Susan Sarfati, president and CEO of the Greater Washington Society of Association Executives. "95% of these organizations are national or international in scope. The DC metropolitan area has the largest community of non-profit organizations in the nation. Over one-third of all associations in the country are here."
Remember Monica Lewinsky?
"While many stories about interns have been negative in recent years, interns are the unsung heroes of Washington - for non-profits, associations and government agencies," says Mary Ryan, director of the Washington based Institute for Experiential Learning (IEL). "Washington is a great city for young people and it is a great city for people to gain and test professional skills."
Why Are Internships Important?
Being an intern gives you the chance to test the water before you take the plunge. Many employers use internships as a cheaper, more cost-effective way to find and recruit permanent staff.
"The outcome of an internship is good, even if an intern comes away from an experience not liking what they thought they would," Ryan continues. "In the long run, this will save the intern time, money and effort on an education or in pursuit of a professional path that they just don't really want to be in."
"People should always keep in mind the value of networking, even if working in one section of an organization, they will be communicating with people across the organization in many different departments and professional areas," says Philip Li, executive director of the Coro New York Leadership Center. They will get a broad sense of the jobs and responsibilities as it relates to that non-profit and make many contacts. They will learn and meet people in sales, marketing, finance," he says.
Types of Associations
Groups of people and companies form associations to advance a particular mission. These groups provide services that would not otherwise be provided by government on matters ranging from regulatory services to industry standards.
There are three types of associations. Regardless of size, reputation, and industry each can have an influence:
All associations regardless of size, reputation and industry can have an influence. Not all associations are not-for-profit organizations; rather they are tax-exempt. "It is a misconception that associations are by definition special interest groups, says Sarfati. "Primarily they are educational entities. Many associations and not-for-profit organizations do no lobbying at all."
- Trade associations: Organizations whose primary interests are in representing business interests ranging from electronics manufacturers to fresh fruit and vegetables.
- Professional societies: These groups represent any kind of profession you can think of ranging from teachers, to air conditioning contractors, to yes, even lawyers.
- Philanthropic organizations: Groups whose primary mission incorporates the not-for-profit ideal. These are primarily donor-based organizations involved in social service activities. Habitat for Humanity and Food & Friends are examples of this type of organization.
Reasons for Working at a Non-Profit
Why should you work for a non-profit? This is the million-dollar question you need to answer before you send out your resume. From Sarfati's perspective there are four major reasons:
- You believe in the mission of the organization and have a passion for its work.
- You want to institute change.
- This is a people-oriented business. If you like to work with people, this is the place for you.
- Non-profits are great places to round out your skills, from publishing a magazine, to lobbying and financial management. Because non-profits are often small businesses, the employees there end up wearing many hats.
What Kinds of Qualities Do Non-Profits Seek in an Intern?
An internship is, in a sense, part of your right of passage into adulthood. You go from passively learning from lectures and books to where you actively seek out opportunities to gain knowledge. "If you are passive about getting what you want as an intern - you will not get what you want and your internship may be a very disappointing experience, " says Ryan.
You could just sit around and let people tell you what to do, or be proactive and leverage the resources in your workplace to extract the most out of your experience - it's up to you.
"Not-for-profits and associations look for a strong sense of mission identification on the part of a candidate," says Grant Reeher, associate professor of Political Science at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
"The biggest problem is when students act as if they are still in college and don't adapt to being in a professional environment," he says, "They come late and leave early. They figure that they get extensions all the time for the work that they do in school. The best interns are those with a strong work ethic who are enthusiastic, loyal, show discretion and a sense of professionalism."
How to Apply for an Internship
The process of finding internships with non-profits and associations seems to start earlier every year. For the best and most selective internships, students should plan ahead and begin their selection and application process in the fall, says Reeher. Check your guidebooks and references in the college library.
You may even be able to apply online. You may also need to line up letters of recommendation so be certain that you prepare for your internship hunt well in advance.
Be mindful of all deadlines. If there are no specific deadlines, it's best to apply early. In many cases applications are reviewed on a rolling basis as they are received.
How to Guarantee a Good Internship
In his upcoming book, "The Insider's Guide to Political Internships" (Westview Press), Reeher advises that you make sure you understand your supervisor's expectations on the first day of work. Also, use this meeting to shape your boss's expectations as well so you can create a good balance between grunt work and substantive work.
You need to check everything from your hours of work to the end date of your internship. Identify projects that you will be working on and deadlines for those projects. This meeting can set the tone for the rest of your internship and possibly even a permanent position.
Also, if you get a specific project to work on, that's less photocopying you'll have to do. Other career advisers suggest that you create a written agreement giving you and your boss guidelines for your time together.
Grunt Work vs. Substantive Work
Let's be honest with each other. As an intern, you must accept the fact that you will not be able to escape getting expertise in photocopying or knowing how your bosses like their coffee.
But your can-do attitude and willingness to help the team will be noticed. "My advice to interns is to have a goal of a work mix of 80% of time towards professionally related activities to 20% clerical, says Ryan, "If this ratio is dramatically out of whack, interns should consult with their advisers."
Ahem, Bigger Is Not Always Better
"The single biggest mistake most interns make is to chase the biggest, most famous internship program they can find, versus an internship that focuses on the opportunities for work and the quality of the overall experience, says Reeher. "Meanwhile, the actual experience of the work may be much more interesting and substantive in organizations that are less glamorous." Students may be better off working on a specific project in a non-profit than in going to work for a name brand organization.
"The mark of a successful internship is where the individual gets something challenging to work on or seeks out specific projects with specific types of exposure,"says Li. "For internships with non-profits, students need to research the organization to see what is out there and to identify what is of greatest interest to him or her. Students must identify what work experience will help most to grow and progress their career and career objectives."
Money vs. Experience
"Going into an internship you need to decide if your primary objective is to gain experience, money or both. The best internships in terms of experience may not pay any money," advises Michael Fleischner, vice president of marketing for Peterson's. "You need to make your decision up front. People should also look for the experience to provide skills that are transferable."
The overall trend for non-profits is to pay a minimal amount of money, pay a stipend or to reimburse you for travel. Each organization will vary with what it can afford. Check with your university (and your parents!), to see if housing, travel or meal assistance is available. Unfortunately, Washington is a very expensive place to live.
To earn some extra cash, consider a side job as a waiter, bartender or a lifeguard. As blues man B.B. King once said, "It's all part of the cost of being the boss!" If you have to work three jobs to make ends meet, don't expect much sympathy from the people in your office - they did the same thing.
Regardless of the choices that you make, don't ignore the power of "The Osmosis Factor."
You will absorb more information about your organization's business, work practices, and perhaps the legislative process simply from being in the office. Driving your boss to a speech or accompanying her to a reception can give you more quality time with your boss than just running errands in the office.
Be a selective consumer. Be proactive with your internships. Go forth and conquer! Change the world!
Editor's note: This article by David Liss, was acquired by washingtonpost.com on April 30, 2003.
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