Unpaid interns and the growing threat to volunteering

Third Sector recently published an analysis of “The rise and rise of the unpaid charity intern”. It explores the issues involved and gives voice to those, such as Intern Aware, who feel that unpaid internships should be banned – a call echoed by the union Unite.

I’m aware of a growing number of news articles, blog posts and even lawsuits that oppose unpaid internships, both here in the UK and overseas. What worries me is the potential for this to snowball into an anti-volunteering movement because the philosophical underpinning of many of the arguments seems to be that any work that is truly needed should be paid. 

Don’t believe me? Check out two stories from the USA relating to American football and baseball, in which the involvement of volunteers in major sporting events is called into question, mainly because there is a profit-making component of the enterprise. Now imagine that happened for London 2012, or the recent World Police & Fire Games in Belfast, or Glasgow 2014, or The Ashes series, or the Premier League.

Regardless of personal opinions or political views, the concern is that most of the current anti-unpaid-internship campaigners appear largely uneducated about volunteering itself – and this fundamental lack of knowledge only muddies the discussion further.

For example, Jo Swinson MP commented in a parliamentary debate on interns in June this year that:

“…basically, if someone is offering their time of their own free will and they can come and go as they please, they are a volunteer, but if they are required to perform specific tasks and can be disciplined if duties are not performed as agreed, they are a worker.”

So a volunteer shouldn’t do specific tasks or be held to account if they don’t do a good job? Really? Is that actually how we want to think about volunteers: people doing meaningless work that makes no contribution of any value to society whatsoever? So much for volunteers making a difference.

To be clear, some internships are exploitative, whether they are paid or unpaid. There is good and bad practice (this is also true of volunteering as well, by the way). The bad needs addressing, the good encouraging. The solution, however, is not to assume all unpaid internships are by nature exploitative or bad and ban them. Not to mention the absence of any acknowledgement that individuals have the right to choose to do something voluntarily. When surgeons spend holiday time doing operations in developing countries, do we assume they “should” be paid or that they are not doing something meaningful because they are not?

Nor is the solution to foster a mindset which believes that no one should do any unpaid work under any circumstances? We can combat outright exploitation of unpaid jobs, while still championing the value and necessity of volunteering done right.

These are complex issues that go beyond mere soundbite and political rhetoric. They cut to the heart of what volunteering and  civil society is all about. Put simply, the basis of this anti-unpaid-intern debate potentially poses one of the biggest risks to the principles of volunteerism we have ever seen. We need to be educated and informed and some body such as the NCVO or The Association For Volunteer Managers needs to start standing up for and defending volunteering before the baby disappears along with the bathwater.

For a fuller analysis of the issues around the anti-unpaid-intern debates, please read a free article I co-authored with Susan Ellis in the international online journal e-Volunteerism.

This a growing issue around the world and one we need to tackle in an informed and intelligent way.

8 Responses to “Unpaid interns and the growing threat to volunteering”

  1. Peter Storey

    Well done Rob. As ever, volunteering is seen by many as nice-to-have work but important stuff can only be done by a professional. I would add to your examples the school governor. Boards of Governors are necessary to run schools as there is no regionalised management structure in education. They are accountable, responsible, and necessary but of course are volunteers. We’d better pay all of them now then I suppose? And all those other leading volunteers, without whom the development of society would just stall.

  2. Jamie Darwen

    I couldn’t agree more. I’m concerned that some university careers services are starting to refuse promotion of any unpaid internships (including those in charities), on the grounds of taking an ethical stance, and in response to high profile campaigns by Intern Aware supported by NUS. These decisions are made on an uninformed basis (the report by Intern Aware and Unite on interns in the voluntary sector practically admits itself it is based on flawed research), and deny some excellent opportunities to students and graduates. The conversations I’ve had to support these opportunities then tend to follow exactly the lines that Rob is claiming – that if a role has value it should be paid, and so volunteering becomes essentially meaningless. This is very challenging to those of us who are championing volunteering in universities, and the benefits it can have for employability and personal development.

    I don’t see charities and volunteer managers responding to the claims made by Intern Aware, and making a strong case for the excellent opportunities many are offering. There is a lot of misinformation, and if we don’t redress the balance then, as Rob says, this is a real threat to what we value about volunteering.

  3. Wally Harbert

    Exactly right Rob.

    An interesting aspect of the current public debate about interns is the way in which some commentators like Jo Swinson MP have gone to absurd lengths to draw a distinction between internships and volunteering. There is a simple explanation for this.

    Volunteering is like apple pie and motherhood. In a democracy it is inviolable, beyond reproach. Critics of internships perform mental somersaults to ensure they say nothing that suggests volunteering is suspect or that volunteers engage in anti-social activities. That would be heretical, like denying the existence of god during the Spanish Inquisition. It would even cast doubt on the legitimacy of much of the motive-power that sustains political parties.

    Unpaid internships are indistinguishable from volunteering. Ban unpaid internships and you cannot avoid banning large chunks of traditional volunteering. Fortunately, any kind of ban is unenforceable in a modern democracy so the debate is of academic interest only.

    I do not want to live in a society where volunteering or giving – however defined – is seen as anti-social.

  4. Jennie Smith

    Whilst I agree with many of the points raised in your article Rob, I do think that there is another side to the debate. Most of the interns that I have spoken to feel that they have no choice but to complete an unpaid internship if they want to move into a career in the voluntary sector. They say they simply aren’t getting interviews if they don’t have significant office-based experience in the area they are looking to move into, be it fundraising, campaigning or whatever and that internships are one of the few ways of gaining this. So whilst these individuals are “choosing” to volunteer they are only doing so because they feel there is no viable alternative, save shelving their ambitions to enter the sector altogether. If this is true and internships are becoming something of a pre-requisite to a first job in the sector then I think this is something we should be concerned about.

    In my view it’s less a worry about individual interns being exploited (most of the internships I have observed have been excellent quality and highly effective at enhancing employability) and more about a concern that the charity sector risks becoming elitist and exclusive to all but those who can afford to support themselves whilst they complete an unpaid internship. That’s an awful lot of potential talent for the sector to miss out on.

    As you say it is a very complex issue- despite the comments above, I still have mixed feelings about whether internships should be paid, partly due to some of the reasons you raise in your article. I also think there are other ways we could look to address access to careers in the voluntary sector, and hope the debate around internships could at least serve to prompt some more thought around this issue.

    • Rob Jackson

      Thanks for taking the time to comment Jennie.

      I take on board your point but would respond by saying that lots of people have had to give time as unpaid volunteers to get on the bottom rung of the ladder for jobs in the sector in the past so this concept isn’t anything new, except they are now called interns.

      I can remember a student saying to me once that they had to volunteer at University because if they didn’t they were at a disadvantage on the labour market. Nobody forced them to volunteer but the sense of peer pressure and demands of employes effectively required it.

      With the possible distinction that some internships are full-time I don’t see the issue as being that different from what has been the case for many years. Of course the lens of recession, social inequity and real-terms cuts in income focus our minds on the issues much more as well so maybe that’s the main driver here. Either way, we have to be careful not to fundamentally undermine the value and importance of volunteering.

  5. George Patrick Lyster-Todd

    Actually, I couldn’t disagree more. I’m no novice to voluntary work and have been volunteering in various forms from being a charity trustee to helping out with mail-outs for over 25 years. Often there’s an agreed and understood framework within which this occurs and this includes various responsibilities – ie people rely upon me and I have a duty not to let them down. I don’t expect to be paid in any way although, for those who are on low incomes or unemployed, I do expect essential expenses (such as travel) to be paid.

    Being an intern is entirely different from being a volunteer. It’s a means of acquiring supervised work experience in, normally, a professional field. In itself this is fine and, as for volunteers, the payment of essential expenses should be the only financial transaction incurred in exchange for the benefit acquired. However, sadly, this is so often not the case and the intern ends up being expected to work to set hours (and, often, outside these too) with little supervision – in short, they become unpaid labour, often undertaking a number of duties and requirements that would normally be undertaken by a paid worker. It’s this which is wrong.

    So – volunteering: yes, good. Internship where the emphasis is on supervised professional work experience, where the intern retains flexibility on his/her hours and commitment: yes, good. But internship where the reality is that there are set targets, responsibilities, expectations and hours – with little professional mentoring or supervision: no, wrong and, moreover, morally wrong.

    • Rob Jackson

      Thanks for the response George.

      I don’t think you have grasped my point though. I’m not arguing that volunteering is good and unpaid internships are bad. In fact I share concerns with you about the approach of some unpaid-internships.

      My issue is that those opposed to unpaid internships seem to be approaching the issue as though all unpaid work is bad. In effect they are saying that your 25 years of voluntary work should count for nothing and, if it does count for something, then someone should have been paid to do it. Such a mindset risks devaluing the tireless work of volunteers like you and I and we have to guard against that whilst rightly standing up to prevent exploitation.

  6. Fabia Bates

    Another post that gets to the heart of the matter Rob, thanks. It’s particularly interesting to me as I’ll be taking part in our local Chamber of Commerce Big Debate next month which is on the topic ‘Never mind a living wage, what about no wage at all?’ This is the blurb they’re sending out, and some of the questions we’ll be addressing. Think it could be an interesting evening!

    You can’t get a job without skills and experience, you can’t get skills and experience without a job. This Catch 22 situation has existed for a long time but, with UK unemployment at 7.8%, competition for jobs has never been higher – so how do we make work experience more accessible to everyone?

    October’s Big Debate will look at all of the issues around unpaid work and whether it’s ever okay to not pay someone for a day’s work. Questions to be debated include:

    How do you get experience in your chosen field – is it a case of who you know?

    What if you don’t know anyone influential in the field you want to work in?

    Is volunteering the answer?

    Is it morally wrong to have unpaid internships bolster the health and social care sector as well as the creative and media industry?

    When is it okay to volunteer your time and are volunteers replacing paid workers?

    Do unpaid internships lead to jobs for the select few who can afford to work for free for six months or a year?

    What are the pros and cons for businesses involved in paid internship or apprenticeship schemes?


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