Gregory Burbidge

In writing about innovation and arts sector reform, Diane Ragsdale issued a call to action urging all of us to “actively address the social inequities in our country.”

Typically, my initial response to such a call would be something like, “let’s make sure that low-income neighborhood schools have the arts!”

I could then write some letters, “call city hall,” or contact members of the school board. None of those actions would require any substantial change in my conceptual frameworks or daily habits.

While committed to the goal, my efforts would be undertaken with a feeling that they would accomplish little. I am also aware that I may prefer such predictable actions not because they produce results but because they are, well, easy. Maybe that’s just me.

The Emerging Arts Leaders of Atlanta Network hosts regular events, often with one speaker or a panel of speakers.

Last summer, at one such meeting, I heard all sorts of great things about a particular internship program. That same meeting raised the issue about labor laws requiring that unpaid interns are not do work that someone else would otherwise be paid to do. I thought I might put together a panel with some interns who were willing to talk about their experience along with the people who run that intern program and a human resources professional to clarify legal mumbo jumbo.

It was a perfect storm. There I was, proud of having such a stellar panel, and proud of having a room full of people who listened as I pitched questions based off my naïve assumptions. I can say some pretty dumb things when standing in front of a crowded room, not because I am brave, but because I have, until that moment, been quite satisfied exposing myself to an easy access, limited kind of perspective.

I live and work in the city of Atlanta, and Emory University happens to be located there. Emory is a pretty progressive school and its Center for Ethics has established an innovative Ethics and Servant Leadership Internship Program.

After we spent time talking about the legalities of unpaid internships and how to walk the fine line, they pointed out that I was ignoring the much bigger problem with unpaid internships, namely that they were socially inequitable to begin with.

I bypassed the fundamental starting point, and the Emory Ethics and Servant Leadership folks were more than happy to call me out for it. God bless ‘em.

It was a hard truth* and something I should think about more: Unpaid internships overwhelmingly privilege those who are privileged already. Only those who can already afford to work for free get this advantage. These are internships provided to people who can afford to take two months, four months, sometimes a year off, and work for free.

There may be some exceptions, but unpaid internships are filled by people who can afford to work without getting paid for it. In a lot of schools and cities, students are now actually paying money (a lot of money) to intern.

They are paying to work for free. Those internships can often turn into jobs, or networking opportunities, or at the very least a padded resume.

Maybe that’s not what Diane Ragsdale was thinking when writing about “social inequities” that we should be tackling.

In fact, I am pretty darn sure she was trying to make us think of things much bigger. But every time I think of bringing in an intern, I feel really guilty because we can’t afford to pay them, and we are likely continuing to participate in a system where the privileged are getting yet another advantage over those that can’t afford it.

I love my new friends at Emory’s Center for Ethics, particularly its Ethics and the Arts program.

When they challenge me on things like this, I don’t have a response for them quite yet. It is a problem that runs rampant in the field. When they called me out on advancing a system that privileges the privileged, I used the easy response (which I am continuing to provide today):

We can’t afford to pay our interns. Can’t help you. Sorry.

I’m not naïve, I know my organization, like many of yours, cannot afford to pay interns. But to be fair, my ethics friends are completely right that the failure to do so helps cement social inequities.

I have no answer to the problem, easy or otherwise, so I am going to kick this one out there and see if you have any ideas…or at the very least something that helps me feel less ridiculous when my answer is simply a mumbling “but we can’t afford to pay them.”

*The easy truth, for reference, is that Casey and Paul both should have lasted longer last year on American Idol. Seriously now, Casey was a genius.

13 Responses to “Social Inequity and the Unpaid Intern”

  1. Natalie says:

    I see value in your argument; however I think the assumption that only those who can afford to work for free intern is a little misguided. Most people intern and work for pay elsewhere concurrently. I know that myself and many of my peers have undertaken unpaid internships in addition to multiple jobs at the same time to help make ends meet. At my last job I had three unpaid interns, all full-time students with part-time jobs on the side. As someone who has been on the other side, I am always seeking ways to add value to internships because no one wants to get stuck filing away grants for a semester. The overall challenge is that there simply aren’t enough positions for the people who want them, and employers want applicants with experience… at least that is why I went ahead and accepted a part-time internship and two part-time jobs fresh out of college.

  2. Stefanie says:

    I’m incredibly bothered by unpaid internships. When I moved to Boston for graduate school I was seriously underemployed. I couldn’t find any jobs in the non-profit arts scene and my adviser suggested I take an internship or two. When I remarked an internship won’t pay my rent he chuckled and sent me on my way. Thankfully I was married and my spouse was able to be the primary wage earner but by the time I was able to secure full time employment I was met with the internship requirement for my degree. I was told, again by the adviser of the year, that I can skip my lunches Monday-Thursday and work my internship on Friday. I could also take all the sick time and vacation time I earn and work my internship then. All while I am paying for 2 credit hours of tuition for the opportunity to work at an arts organization that won’t hire me, but will use my 10+ years of work history to write emails and file? No thank you. I dropped out of the program without completing the internship portion and haven’t looked back.

    Yes, a lot of people handle the internship portion by taking extra student loans and working constantly, but what about a mother going back to school who simply can’t afford it. I completely believe that unpaid internships are illegal and when I am in a position at an organization to offer an internship I will absolutely budget in some form of monetary compensation.

  3. News flash: unpaid interns are volunteers.

    I know interns cringe at the term. They balk. “No, we’re not *just* volunteers – we’re highly-skilled unpaid interns! We’re pro bono consultants! We’re so much more than *just* volunteers!”

    “Volunteer” doesn’t define skill level. It doesn’t define scope of responsibility. It doesn’t define motivation. It defines just one thing: what you are paid (nothing).

    And involving volunteers primarily to save money is never, ever a good primary reason to involve volunteers, interns or not.

    Indeed, volunteering in any form excludes many people: people who can’t afford to donate unpaid time, people who lack the financial resources to move someone or travel somewhere to volunteer, people who don’t have childcare options, people that don’t have the very narrow, specific abilities many nonprofits require for volunteering roles, and people under 18 (most orgs don’t allow younger volunteers), to name but some.

    I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: this is a volunteer engagement issue. An organization – even an arts organization – needs to think about why it involves volunteers *primarily*. And if that reason is “to save money”, it’s time for a reality check. Oh, and I just happen to have that right here:

  4. Greg Burbidge says:

    These are some great comments, and of course give me even more to think about.

    @Natalie – I’m glad I’m not in school. The idea of graduating to take a half time job and a half time unpaid job/internship depressing. When I went to school I could either spend my summers in a small mining community making the money I needed to pay for school, or stay in the city to take an unpaid internship. I choose the mines, and if nothing else I get to add “gold miner” to my resume. I think the problem isn’t necessarily that there isn’t enough positions for the people that want them, it’s that a lot of the positions that exist no longer pay any money.

    @Stefanie – I am with you… part way at least. I think offering monetary compensation for an internship is awesome, but I am torn because I know the reality is many organizations can’t afford it. I suppose if we can’t afford to pay people, we shouldn’t have the privilege of having those people around.

    @Jayne – Another challenging voice in the conversation. I love it! I don’t think I have ever heard someone say they felt excluded from volunteering opportunities, but I am going to call my friends this week at Hands On Atlanta and have a conversation about inclusionary volunteering practices.

    This is just giving me more to think about! Kudos, even though I like to function in platitudes.

  5. Kirstin says:

    This article is generating some good discussion. The content is thought-provoking and it is clear that people are relating to the internship conundrum. Good job, Greg! I really enjoyed your post.

    I am presently in the process of generating an internship program at my non-profit arts organization. I whole-heartedly disagree with interns being just volunteers. The point of an internship program is that the organization receives support and labor as a trade off for an intern receiving opportunity to learn new skills, experience professional working environments, build resumes, and uncover their interest area (among other things). AN intern should have the expecation that they be treated as a staff member and participate on a deeper level with organizational activities. A volunteer is someone who comes to work for an organization with no expectation of guided learning experiences developed and created by staff.

    I recognize that this is not often the case for an intern. Internships definitely include tasks that are less than appealing, but these should be coupled with opportunities to explore the different facets of operation and to take ownership of a project of interest during their tenure at the site. In my eyes, it is the role of the supervisor and the arts organization to establish a culture of respect and provision of educational oversight for an intern. Goal setting, reflection and revision of goals as well as coaching should be built into the structure of an internship.

    And don’t tell me you are too busy. If you are too busy, don’t hire an intern. Internships take more time up front from staff to guide them into the rhythm of the organization and sometimes don’t result in increased capacity. Sure, they can be amazing and help you take your work to the next level, but we aren’t just getting free work in an internship; we are shaping and assisting the next generation of arts leaders…

  6. “I whole-heartedly disagree with interns being just volunteers. ”

    What a startling statement – “Just volunteers.” What’s wrong with volunteers? Do you think so little of volunteers?

    Arts organizations are own by a board of directors – volunteers.

    Arts organizations often receive pro bono consulting from lawyers. They often receive donated services from graphic designers. Does that somehow cheapen the expertise? No. And, indeed, they are *volunteers.*

    Volunteers take on high responsibility roles: they serve on boards of directors, they offer pro bono support, they lead disaster aid responses, they fight fires, they counsel people, they guide people through the legal process – and all of these are highly trained and highly skilled.

    “an intern receiving opportunity to learn new skills, experience professional working environments, build resumes, and uncover their interest area (among other things). ” Which is what many volunteers want. It is the primary motivation of many, if not MOST volunteers these days.

    “A volunteer is someone who comes to work for an organization with no expectation of guided learning experiences developed and created by staff.”

    Volunteers have VERY high expectations of training and participation at nonprofit organizations! If you aren’t treating your volunteers this way, it says a lot about you, not the volunteers!

    “Just volunteers” – wow.

  7. Meghan says:

    As a volunteer coordinator for a non-profit (but not arts-centric) organization, I agree that interns are volunteers. Our interns contribute to our mission in a way that builds their skills. For soon-to-be graduates, this can mean shadowing staff in different department if the intern doesn’t know exactly what s/he wants to do after graduation. For high school students, this can mean developing basic work skills. For more skilled interns, this can mean applying those skills a new way for the intern. The goal is always for them to learn something from their time with us. If an organization is using interns as workhorses to cut costs, that’s a problem. If schools are assigning internships to keep students busy without having to pay for instruction costs, that’s a problem. The integration of hands-on and classroom learning is not inherently a problem, but it’s poor execution could be. Disrespect for volunteerism, however, especially in a sector (the arts) where volunteers should be highly respected, is a bit disturbing.

  8. Greg Burbidge says:

    @Kirstin – Thanks for the great input. I don’t envy you starting an internship program. Every time I think about starting one here, I think about intentionality, and that sounds like a $10 word for hard work. I’d love for you to build that program and then license it to me. I have been mulling this over today, and I am for the most part with you on there being a differentiation between what we think of in the arts as volunteers, and what we think of as interns.

    @Jayne – There is a spectrum of volunteer work out there, to be sure. I know many theaters in town use volunteers to take tickets as ushers, and perform other similar work. It’s critical work for an organizations success, but they do not participate with the intention of gaining learning experiences. I have volunteered in these roles with only the intention of getting free tickets. Volunteer is a big section on my resume though. When I volunteered for a radio station as a morning show host, it was more involved than taking tickets, but held less responsibility than when I volunteered to be the board chair of an arts organization.

    @Meghan – a complicated conversation! Are interns volunteers if they are paid interns? I suppose I would agree interns are volunteers if they volunteer their time, but if they are paid interns are they still volunteers? Because some interns are paid and some are not, I am not sure I would lump them all under the volunteer banner (no matter how much we like that banner).

    I like the conversation, but it has certainly drifted. I think Kirstin would certainly agree with me that volunteers are great — but it doesn’t address whether Interns should be paid or not. Unless we’re talking about paying for all volunteer work.

    • This conversation isn’t drifting at all – we’re getting to the heart of the matter: poor volunteer management. Atrocious volunteer management, in fact.

      “but they do not participate with the intention of gaining learning experiences. ”

      How do you know? Have you surveyed all the volunteer ushers in the world? When I was a teen, I was a volunteer usher for every touring show that came through the large city next door, and it was both to see the show for free AND to gain a learning experience! I wanted to go into arts management and marketing, and it was my foot in the door. I didn’t do it to be nice or to be kind or because I was board – I wanted experience and connections for my dream career. And all of my fellow ushers were just like me – this was about getting arts experience the only way we could.

      If interns are unpaid, they are volunteers. That doesn’t somehow lessen their importance. That doesn’t take away their “intern” title.

      A receptionist, whether paid or unpaid, is the receptionist. The Executive Director, paid or unpaid, is the Executive DIrector.

      “Are interns volunteers if they are paid interns?” The term volunteer means just one thing – that the person isn’t paid. That’s all it means! If someone is paid, they are either an employee or a consultant/independent contractor. Can an intern be a volunteer or a consultant or an employee? Sure! So can a marketing director. So can the receptionist. They get to keep all their titles and use them. They don’t have to put “Volunteer” on their business cards in front of the term intern, or marketing director, or executive director, or whatever. It’s immaterial if you were paid to be a marketing director or not – what’s important is what you did and what you accomplished, if we’re talking resumes and professional networking. So if your volunteering position is designated as “intern”, you can say so.

      Every organization – including arts organizations – needs to be clear about exactly why they reserve certain roles for volunteers/unpaid staff, and that primary reason should never, ever be “Because we don’t have the resources to pay someone to do it.” If interns are grumbling that they aren’t being paid for work, and if organizations are saying that the only reason they aren’t paying interns (or any volunteers, for that matter) is because they don’t have the money, there is a very, very big problem – and as I detail just how huge those problems are in my blog, I won’t repeat myself.

      Now, to the question, should interns be paid or not? Well… should ushers be paid or not? Should the Executive Director be paid or not? Should the marketing director be paid or not? Should the receptionist? An organization has to be able to say why certain positions are reserved for volunteers – beyond “So we don’t have to pay people.” If they can’t answer that about their internship program, then you have every right to complain – I’ll be right there with you doing so.

      So here’s my challenge to arts organizations: write a mission statement for your overall volunteering program, and for your unpaid internship program *specifically*. You have to be able to say why, specifically, you reserve internship roles for volunteers. Here’s ideas for how to do that:
      Mission statements for your volunteer engagement
      And if you can’t do that for your unpaid intern program, then you need to start thinking about how you are going to pay them for the work they are doing.

  9. Kirstin says:

    I think I may have misrepresented myself. I did not have the intention of belittling the volunteer position at all! I was only attempting to make a point about the differentiation between an intern and a volunteer. I spent years running a 100K festival and relied on the ability and expertise of volunteers and totally agree that they are amazing and essential to many efforts. My point was more toward the fact that inherent in an internship is the expectation of receiving skills and education in return and that it should be a requirement. This is not the case with an a volunteer position, but I recognize that it often does happen anyway.

    I recognize that my words were poorly chosen, specifically the “just”, but an opinion is an opinion. I am really bummed out by the selected responses, especially “welcome to the 21st century, Kirstin”. That was a really awesome teaching moment…thanks for “educating” me with your opinion in such a positive way and for being a part of an environment that encourages people to participate.

  10. Tim Mikulski says:

    Kirstin, I understand your points and didn’t take the “just volunteers” comment to heart at all. I do encourage positive comments here on the blog and I am sorry that you had that experience. Personal attacks are not tolerated.

  11. Meghan says:

    @Greg, I was referring just to unpaid interns, briefly forgetting that *some* internships are paid. I think the key for an organization is why they choose to not pay an intern. If an unpaid intern is doing the same work that a paid intern/employee would be doing, that is a problem. At my organization, we bring on students as interns because they are not qualified for our paid positions (and we are very careful to put educational requirements at a realistic level so as not to discriminate against individuals who might have lots of relevant work experience but lack a degree). Part of my focus is in ensuring that all unpaid staff (whether or not they have the label of intern) are getting their desired reward from their time at our organization, whether it’s a connection to the people we serve, learning a specific skill, or general experience in the field while taking a related class (usually the interns). If a volunteer is looking to gain a specific experience outside of a required internship, I do what I can (within reason) to accommodate that as well, because that is a perfectly reasonable motivation for someone to choose to give their time.

    I think schools should be sure that any internship requirements they have create only realistic burdens for their students. For example, student teachers generally are not required to take any other classes the semester they are doing what is essentially a full-time internship. They also are not expected to just step into the classroom and perform the role of a teacher day one so that the school can save money on staff by employing student teachers in place of certified ones. One of my interns with a slightly lower hour requirement than many said that her school breaks the internship that’s required to become certified into two semesters to lower the burden on students while still requiring they get plenty of hands-on practice before graduating. Unpaid internships are not inherently unethical, but poorly executed unpaid internships are, and schools/professional certifications requiring internships and the organizations/companies employing interns have to work together keep things above board.

  12. Anjali says:

    I find it interesting that nobody addressed the issue of social inequity. I have had to turn down full-time unpaid internships that would have looked great on my resume because I needed to pay rent.

    I have no problem with unpaid part-time internships, or those for school credit. I do, however, take issue with full-time, longterm, unpaid internships because the only people who can accept them can afford to not get paid. Where does that leave the rest of us who may be equally deserving of the learning opportunities?

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