Supervising an Intern? Give as Much as You Ask

Press Release from Idealist

Supervising an Intern? Give as Much as You Ask

Alice Pettway Mar 27, 2023 10:00 AM Illustration by Marian Blair

If your organization is able to support an internship program, then you already know how invaluable these temporary team members are to our sector. Successful interns can add capacity to your staff, assist with wish-list items you haven’t found the time for, and provide mentoring opportunities for new managers.

Within social impact, you’re likely to find hard-working interns who are dedicated to your organization’s mission and eager to jump into the important work that you do every day. It may be tempting to breathe a sigh of relief while handing off important administrative tasks, but remember that interns are at your organization to learn about the sector as a whole—and it’s your job to deliver that education.

Develop an enriching program

Your internship program could be someone’s first experience in the social-impact sector; whether they’re a current student or a sector switcher looking to transition to a nonprofit, they may already have a diverse skill set and perspective to bring to your organization. Consider their level of experience as you plan what aspects of the work you’d like to expose them to.

For example, a role that involves administrative work and some reception support could be well suited for a high school student looking to gain office experience and develop their professional communication skills. Assisting with research, however, would be more appropriate for a graduate-school student looking for field experience relevant to their studies.

As you develop your program, communicate expectations by setting clear and measurable goals. This initial planning will help you monitor your intern’s progress over the course of the program, and give them a better understanding of what they will achieve with your organization.

Encourage new ideas and perspectives

We all get stuck in a rut every now and then, so teaching someone else about your organization may help you reconsider old habits and optimize daily processes. Don’t be afraid to say, “You know what? I think there may be another way to do this. Let’s sit down and brainstorm a better process!”

Make sure to regularly ask your intern for their perspective on projects they’re assisting with, as well. You may be surprised by the fresh ideas they share about improving your organization’s program offerings, or how you can expand a marketing push to potential donors.

Model the ethics you value

On a broader level, mentoring opportunities allow you to model the culture you’d like to see in your organization. Generosity, patience, and kindness are personality traits most social-impact professionals value but may forget to call upon when working with someone who has little or no work experience.

Working with an intern can reaffirm the importance of how we interact with each other, be it on a global stage or in the office. Taking the time to slow down and explain things models the importance of education among colleagues, and treating mistakes as learning opportunities is a great strategy for delivering tough feedback.

Schedule regular learning opportunities

While you want the projects that interns work on to be concise, specific, and attainable, the overall program should provide exposure and an introduction to the many facets of your organization and the sector.

Consider setting up a series of brown bag lunches where different team members speak about their work and career paths. Offering in-house training can also be helpful programming. You might consider hosting a workshop to walk through the importance of CRMs, share tips for writing a professional email, or talk about other development areas that relate to the sector.

Remember: all interns become ambassadors—for better or worse

Eventually, you’ll part ways with your intern. Maybe it will be after their semester is over, or maybe it will be after you’ve worked together for ten years. Either way, you will be sending an ambassador out into the world of social impact. How that ambassador describes your organization depends largely on the relationship you’ve built.

Taking the time to be a patient, hands-on mentor helps you, your organization, and your intern. That’s an outcome that feels even better than clearing the backlog of internal mail off your desk!


Whether you’ve been managing the internship program at your organization for years, or you’re gearing up to supervise your first intern, we hope the above guidance will help you craft a useful program for all. Find more resources for managing interns through our Resources for Organizations blog.

      Subscribe Alice Pettway Mar 27, 2023 10:00 AM

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