How Much Can We Oppose Unpaid Internships If We Love Volunteers?

The controversy over an unpaid intern listing at LeanIn.org, the new nonprofit created by Sheryl Sandberg, has been welcome, because it spotlights a growing consensus that unpaid internships are bad. All sorts of organizations will think twice after this episode about paying people nothing to do work. 

But the flap also raises an interesting question: What's the difference between unpaid interns and unpaid volunteeers

In defending itself against the charge that a billionaire's organization was in search of free labor, LeanIn posted this explanation:

Like many nonprofits, LeanIn.Org has attracted volunteers who are passionate about our mission. We’ve had four students ask to volunteer with us. They worked flexibly when they could, and often remotely.

Those students kind of sound like unpaid interns to me. On the other hand, they kind of sound like volunteers, too. And therein lies the question. 

We tend to think of interns as younger people who show up regularly to a workplace with the goal of acquiring skills, contacts, and experience to advance their careers. And we tend to think of volunteers as people who aren't looking for career gains, don't work regular hours, and are there because of passion or concern. 

In reality, though, the distinctions can be pretty blurry. Think of political campaigns, for example, in which volunteers often work themselves to the bone for month after month. Or various kinds of activist or community organizations where a few paid staff positions exist and volunteer labor makes everything else possible. Or think of tutoring programs where volunteers show up month after month with regular hours to help students. Or think of volunteer fire fighters and paramedics who literally run the emergencyinfrastructure of small towns -- often for years. 

In truth, many volunteers work a lot harder, over more extended and regularized time periods, than your typical student intern who breezes in for a summer or a semester, often part-time. 

The nonprofit world, including many vital organizations, would shrink sharply if we imposed a ban on all unpaid labor. Which is why nobody is suggesting new rules against volunteering. 

And yet unpaid internships are under intense fire in the nonprofit sector. This seems problematic.

At this point, we all know the case against unpaid internships: That these opportunities give an edge to rich kids and subvert our labor laws. (There was a reason the minimum wage was invented, remember.) 

But similar points can be made about volunteering. Habitat for Humanity depends on volunteer labor to build houses around the world for poor people. But guess who can afford to go down to Haiti over Spring Break to build a house? The Catholic Church depends on altar boys for its services and that experience can lead to recommendations and future opportunities. But the poor kid who works isn't going to be an altar boy. 

Being the leader of the local PTA or a coop leader or the board chair of a nonprofit can all translate into career or status gains. But most people without extra wealth can't afford to make time for such big volunteer commitments. 

One other thing about internships, whether paid or not: The reason you're an intern is usually because you don't have many skills or much experience. You may also only have limited time, like just a summer or just a few days a week during the semester. In short, you're not really of much value to the labor force. 

One reason volunteers don't get paid -- say on a political campaign -- is because their hours are limited, they're not sticking around for the long haul, and they're not a professional in the field with lots of experience. The same can be true of many interns. And the quid pro quo of internship has always been simple: You work for little money, or free, and your employer takes the time to train you and lets you hang around in your desired field. Is that such a bad deal? 

At the end of the day, I'm still for paying interns because I think internships are increasingly being abused by employers to get around labor laws.

For the nonprofit sector, though, this debate is more complicated than it typically seems. Just as lots of nonprofits depend on volunteers, so have many depended on unpaid interns. We need to be careful about weakening the sector. 

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