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Unpaid Internships for Nonprofits: Lean In Joins the Controversy

unpaid internship
Liz LeCrone
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Published on August 15, 2013

Sheryl Sandberg, founder of the nonprofit organization Lean In, published her best-selling book, Lean In, on March 1st, 2013. All proceeds from the book go to fund the nonprofit, and Lean In recently announced that over 1 million copies of the book have been sold so far. But despite this literary success, Lean In apparently can’t afford to pay its interns.

In a recent posting on her Facebook page, Jessica Bennett, editor-at-large for Lean In, put out a call for an intern, unpaid, to start as soon as possible. The unpaid internship debate has finally reached the nonprofit sector, and it did not make a quiet entrance.

“Wanted: Lean In editorial intern, to work with our editor (me) in New York. Part-time, unpaid, must be HIGHLY organized with editorial and social chops and able to commit to a regular schedule through end of year. Design and web skills a plus! HIT ME UP. Start date ASAP.”

The post immediately sparked controversy, generating 250 comments so far that declare interest in the position (few and far between), express outrage (Bennett earned herself some unflattering nicknames), and even cite labor codes and laws.

Not three hours after Bennett first posted the position, she put up yet another status, apparently trying to appease the internet community.

“Dear What Appears to Be My Entire Facebook Feed:

Want to clarify previous Lean In post. This was MY post, on MY feed, looking for a volunteer to help me in New York. LOTS of nonprofits accept volunteers. This was NOT an official Lean In job posting. Let’s all take a deep breath.”

Unfortunately for Bennett, this in no way helped her case. Suddenly, the position in question is not an official Lean In job posting, it is not an internship, and it is really just a volunteer position for Bennett herself. Which begs the question: “Why call it an editorial internship in the first place?”

Lean In, based on the book of the same title by Sheryl Sandberg, is an organization dedicated to supporting women, as their website says:

“We are committed to offering women the ongoing inspiration and support to help them achieve their goals. If we talk openly about the challenges women face and work together, we can change the trajectory of women and create a better world for everyone.”

But if they’re so determined to make the world a better place, how can they participate in a practice that carves a deeper rift between the haves and the have-nots, keeping opportunities held aloft and reachable only by those who can afford them? Women are 77% more likely to accept an unpaid internship, and this organization’s message to them is to “lean in” and demand more money while simultaneously expecting them to work for free.

Bennett’s retraction only makes the situation worse, calling into question the ethics of a company that can so easily shift from calling a position an unpaid internship to making it an unofficial volunteer position in a matter of hours.

Of course, Lean In is not the only nonprofit business to offer unpaid internships. In fact, 40.7% of all unpaid internships in 2013 were done at nonprofits, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers. And, despite recent court cases against companies for unlawful unpaid internships, 47.8% of internships are still unpaid.

Unpaid internships are causing a great strain, both on students and the economy as a whole. And though it’s safe to say that everyone has a responsibility to kill the unpaid internship and get on the right side of history, the idea that nonprofits are still profiting off of unpaid labor is especially grating. Those businesses whose very purpose in life is to help the less fortunate—to lessen the gap between the classes, to support equal opportunity for everyone—are the ones at the center of the issue, perpetuating inequality by offering opportunities only to those who can afford them.

Conveniently enough, nonprofits are protected from the Department of Labor’s criteria for legal unpaid internships, along with our own government. The hypocrisy thickens. Well, interns are fighting back, and their message is pretty clear: You should be ashamed of yourselves.

Now, we understand that nonprofits don’t always have the funding for hires, and at the same time often have high demand for volunteers. But this issue has led to what is called the leaky bucket phenomenon:  skilled workers are given low-skill volunteerships and ultimately have a high drop-out rate.

Add to this that only 37% of unpaid interns get jobs out of their experiences, as opposed to 60% of paid interns, and it’s clear that we have a problem.

Many nonprofits can afford paid interns. And they should, because it is the right thing to do and the best way to bring in the kind of talent that will move core goals and not just be a burden to manage. And while nonprofits across the country will cry out that they really can’t afford to pay their interns, Lean In seems to have offered a solution: just call them unofficial volunteers.

Liz LeCrone

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