Internships in the third sector: encouraging new forms of engagement or papering over the funding gaps?
Caddell, Martha; McIlwhan, Rosemarie (2011)

by Martha Caddell and Rosemarie McIlwhan, Open University in Scotland

Internships are a relatively new – and growing – phenomenon within third sector organisations. Such opportunities potentially provide a bridge between volunteering activity and professional paid employment in an organisation’s portfolio of posts and offer new pathways for encouraging engagement in third sector activity. With this growth in internships comes a need for the sector to pause and reflect on the practice and consider if, and how, internships can be made to work in line with the ethics as well as the economics of the sector.

In the current context of growing graduate un- and under-employment, renewed focus is being directed to the role of internships as mechanisms for gaining work experience and securing routes in to permanent jobs. Yet internships are also increasing in their notoriety for being unpaid, leading to a new elitism where only those who can afford to can gain the experience necessary to access certain professions. In addition, in the context of the economic downturn and associated job cuts, there is a growing risk that interns are taking on tasks that should be performed by paid employees.

The increasing use of internships by third sector organisations raises critical questions about the balance between voluntarism and professionalism in the sector. Should paid internships in the voluntary sector be encouraged as a means of attracting new skills and experience into the sector, or should such contributions remain ‘voluntary’ and unpaid? How should internships be established that are both ethical and legal as well as being of genuine mutual benefit to the intern and voluntary organisation?

This paper draws on action research being conducted alongside the development of the Third Sector Internships Scotland programme, a collaborative effort involving Scottish universities and the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations. The paper argues that paid internships can offer considerable benefits for students and for voluntary organisations. However, there is a need for greater appreciation of the skills and support needs of both interns and third sector organisations if such initiatives are to fulfil their potential. The paper draws on case studies from the TSI Scotland programme and situates these within current policy debates to argue for a more strategic consideration of the place of internships as a new form of engagement with the voluntary sector.

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