Unpaid positions, ethics, and you!

Hello! My name is... intern.

A large part of my role at work is to coordinate, train, and cheerlead for our volunteers.

I’ve been really thinking about motivations and ethics behind volunteering, unpaid internships, and “working for free.” It doesn’t seem like there are distinctions, but the three are amazingly different.

First of all, my working definitions:

  • Volunteer: most flexible option, lowest time commitment, highest expectation for “goodies” throughout the experience.
  • Intern: career-oriented, high workload, low/no payout, high expectation of career-ready skills and job offers.
  • Work-for-free: hazy grey area, often guilted into or an addition to a regular internship or job. Not okay in most people’s books.

Personally, I see a huge value in volunteering and interning. There is much debate on the subject. Some organizations have pulled their volunteer docent programs in favour of paid systems, or even eliminating interning alltogether. Other organizations have a large, flourishing and demanding intern program. I understand the confusion, as well as the benefits.

Paid staff have higher accountability, ability to process constructive critisism, and a larger drive (in general). There is the added benefit of a higher show-up rate and ability to get them to do the jobs no one wants to. Staff roles are often very different than volunteer roles. This distinction is essential in creating a fair environment for both volunteers and staff to flourish in.

Volunteers/interns are often driven to their fields of interest by their passions. It results in them being very self-motivated. But does an organization trusting them to “work for free” take advantage of the system? Maybe. Probably.

As someone who has been in all three positions (although, my internship was paid), I have had positive experiences throughout. Volunteering has allowed me to supplement my school/job experience to help grow my CV. Work-for-free has allowed me to develop good relationships with people. This has often resulted in me helping them out for a day or two in a field I have no interest in, for either a handshake or a barter item. Interning allowed me to gain work experience – though I bet that if I had an unpaid internship, it would be very stressful, especially a full time one.

It seems to be that internships are the sticky bit. Halfway between working-for-free and volunteering, it is a balance of useful work experience and networking, but also limiting potential to make any money to live.

I have a few questions:

  • In general, do you think it is fair to host unpaid volunteers and interns where other people get paid to work?
  • Do you think it is appropriate to expect students to complete unpaid internships as part of their education?
    • Does it make a difference if they pay student fees or if the position must be full time?

I am curious to see what your thoughts are. Please comment below!


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