Internships in the era of COVID-19: A Nonprofit Guide for Virtual Internships

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Bringing on an intern in the midst of this pandemic may seem like a time-intensive endeavor in an already resource-strained environment, but the benefits to nonprofits of hosting interns remain. Students have adapted their expectations for professional development opportunities and are eager to intern virtually. In addition to gaining support from an intern, your organization can be proud that it continued to provide opportunities to aspiring young nonprofit leaders, despite the challenges of COVID-19.

As the Director of Washington Programs for Ohio State’s John Glenn College, I sit in a unique place in the higher education community; I manage our internship programs in Washington, DC. I often hear from students that the option to come to DC and intern for a nonprofit, government agency, or Congressional office drew them to Ohio State in the first place, and they consider the internship experience to be the hallmark of their higher education journey. To intern at a nonprofit that they have studied in their courses is a dream for many. In the first week of a new semester, I often have students in my office processing with excitement all they are experiencing as an intern.

“They let me go to the Hill today to sit-in on an advocacy meeting!”

“My supervisor had me run registration for our annual conference and I met members from across the country- all there for the same mission- it was awesome!”

This is just a tiny snapshot of the valuable experiences any intern can have while working at a nonprofit. On top of the buzz of ‘being on the inside,’ we know they are also gaining invaluable skills - grant writing, fundraising, stakeholder management, social media management, communications, advocacy - that can  set them up for successful careers in the nonprofit sector.

But COVID-19 presents great challenges to these opportunities. In May 2020, Glassdoor estimated internship placements in the United States with both nonprofits and for-profits fell nearly 50 percent compared to May 2019. In one estimate, internship opportunities with nonprofits dropped by 30 percent immediately in March 2020 as COVID appeared on the scene. No wonder: Adapting an internship to the virtual environment is daunting. 

From where I sit, I’m confident that nonprofits still want to host interns, but in an already uncertain environment, many nonprofit leaders just aren’t sure they know how to make internships work.

While moving an internship program online may feel overwhelming, the value to the organization and student is real, and it will be a lost opportunity if we don't give it a try.: All we need to do is embrace a structure that works in the virtual world. Here are some tips I’ve learned about moving an internship into a virtual format that I hope may work for you, too: 

This is simply an outline- for further guidance and a list of useful resources, please see: John Glenn College’s Virtual Internships: A Guide for Employers.

  1. Clear objectives- Just as you would with an in-person experience, clearly define for yourself, your team, and the intern what the primary objectives are for any intern who joins your team. What are the primary tasks and duties, and what professional development opportunities can you build into this internship? Be sure to share the objectives (and expectations) in a written  description with the intern and everyone involved: direct supervisor, human resources team, intern, and school contact, if your intern is coming to your nonprofit from an academic program.
  2. Training plan- This could be your intern’s first virtual experience, and possibly their first internship. A highly organized and comprehensive onboarding process can lay the foundation for a successful internship, virtual or in-person. Consider the following:
    • Spreading onboarding out over a few days to a week: Don’t feel like you must cram everything into the first day! Think about the order of meetings and how to balance them. This LinkedIn resource offers a sample virtual onboarding schedule.
    • HR paperwork and policies: Schedule a meeting with appropriate HR contact(s). Does your intern need specific software or IT privileges to be successful? Will your organization send the intern a laptop, hotspot, or other equipment? Do they need to access certain drives or IT resources? Make a list of HR/IT needs and help the intern work through each. But be sure they are aware of security policies, which are especially important in a virtual environment.
    • Communication: In this virtual world, online communication tools are more important than ever. Be sure to set-up accounts for the platform(s) your organization uses to communicate and meet, along with instructions and expectations. If you have a code of conduct or an etiquette guide, be sure to provide them to the intern.
    • Confidentiality: Related to communication is what information cannot be shared. Certain information, such as donor lists, is private property that belongs to the organization and should not be taken or shared externality. Also, many nonprofits handle information that must be treated as confidential under federal and/or state laws, such as students’ education records and patients’ health care records. Save your intern from embarrassment and protect your nonprofit from potential legal liability by both identifying what is confidential and explaining why so they learn for future reference.
    • Pre-work: While you won’t want to overload your intern before their first day, send a recommended list of readings/websites/social media for their review ahead of their first day. Make sure you share your nonprofit’s mission, vision, and values statements. This can help them acclimate to your organization before they set foot in the (virtual) door.
    • Trainings:  Does your intern need special training to be successful? Build these trainings into the onboarding schedule and provide clear deadlines by which they should be completed.
    • Community-building: Every organization is different, but think of how to ‘introduce’ your intern to other colleagues and teams. Will your intern have a mentor in addition to a direct supervisor? How can you move online the classic first day walk around the office, filled with handshakes and greetings? What about setting-up virtual coffee dates with leads on other teams, or with other staff who will delegate responsibilities to your intern. Encourage your intern to ask each person they “meet” with to outline their role and clarify how the intern can support them.
    • Other interns? Consider doing onboarding activities together and building in introductions. If possible, find ways for them to collaborate. If your nonprofit only has one intern, are there colleague organizations that may also be hosting interns with whom your nonprofit could collaborate, so the interns can benefit from shared knowledge and feel part of a “cohort” community?
  3. Define Supervisor Structure- Make your supervisory structure clear- the intern should have a direct supervisor who manages their day-to-day work, and an HR contact, as applicable. Ideally, the supervisor should invite the intern(s) to an introductory meeting at the beginning of the internship to clarify expectations and the performance management process. Interns will be curious to know how their performance will be defined and tracked. If possible, try to schedule a mid-point and final review. In the introductory meeting, share what you can about this process.
  4. Communication- This can be the biggest challenge for internship success in our virtual world. Remember that those organic, unscheduled hallway conversations will be harder (but not impossible!) to replicate in the virtual world. Some leading practices to facilitate  communication include:
    • Daily touchpoint and weekly check-in: Have a daily touchpoint built into each workday, even if only for 15 minutes. Schedule at least one substantive (30 minutes – 1 hour) check-in meeting each week.
    • Agenda: Use a weekly agenda template for your more substantive check-in to keep the intern (and you!) organized. You might add reflective pieces such as “What was difficult this week?” and “What surprised you? What are you most proud of?” This allows the intern an opportunity to reflect and communicate, while providing you with greater insight for how the internship is going.
    • Work plan that includes a feedback loop: Within the first 2 weeks, develop a clear work plan. Go over what is expected, plus how the intern will know if they are meeting expectations. How can they expect to receive feedback, and how frequently? Do they know how (and whom) to give feedback to about their experience?
    • Etiquette: Communicate expectations for professionalism and etiquette at your organization. Go over etiquette for email, texting, phone calls, social media, and video conferences, along with dress code expectations. Remember, this might be the first time the intern has worked in a nonprofit, or even the intern’s first “job,” and being virtual tends to make us all a bit less formal. 
    • Context: It can be difficult for the intern to understand the full context of the nonprofit’s work, especially without hallway conversations. How do the intern’s tasks help advance the nonprofit’s mission? Instead of simply assigning tasks, take a moment to explain how this task fits into the bigger picture. This will be motivating to the intern and can really increase the quality of the intern’s work!
  5. Community-building: While you can’t take a virtual intern to lunch, invite them to team social events, or ask them to join the office kickball team, you can still build community. Consider having a welcome coffee or lunch virtually for your intern. If appropriate, arrange a virtual office happy hour, or other social event. If your organization has other interns, consider an intern trivia night or launching an intern book club. Make an effort to ensure the intern understands the different teams in your organization and set-up coffees or lunch virtually with colleagues working in other areas. Debrief these events with the intern to ensure they understand and field follow-up questions. When appropriate, invite your intern to meetings and debrief afterwards. All these small steps help build the pipeline of future nonprofit leaders and for their continued growth and development.
  6. Professional development and mentorship: Part of the value of an internship is the professional development and mentorship. You can still provide meaningful professional development and mentorship in a virtual setting:
    • Consider assigning a mentor or ‘buddy’ who is not the intern’s direct supervisor. The mentor should check-in frequently and field questions.
    • Ask the student about their short and long-term goals. Help them develop these goals and connect them to the work of the organization.
    • If your organization offers trainings, or hosts webinars,  then enroll your intern when appropriate. Suggest other webinars hosted by colleague organizations that might be relevant to the intern’s work.
    • Set-up virtual coffees with others in the organization (or broader field) and mentor your student through the networking process.
    • Set-up a meet-and-greet with the CEO or high-level leaders in your organization for the intern(s).
    • If you feel comfortable doing so, offer resume review, mock interviewing, and other professional guidance near the end of the internship.

Your nonprofit is not alone: Don’t overlook the opportunity to strengthen your nonprofit’s internship program by collaborating with universities and colleges. One example of building partnerships is in North Carolina, where the Governor created a structured way to connect students with local governments and nonprofits for internships amid COVID-19. In the world of Washington, DC internships, many programs have adapted and moved online, including the one I manage for Ohio State University. We provide a great deal of support to students, and offer resources to our internship partners as well, ensuring the success of virtual internships. Collaborating with structured programs with strong university support can reduce some burdens on the nonprofit (and increase the likelihood of receiving a student that has been pre-vetted and well-prepared for an internship!).

While these times are certainly challenging, I find myself inspired by the resiliency of my students and nonprofit internship hosts. Virtual internship programs are not easy to build, and likely not what many of us –students, hosts, higher education professionals- pictured. But in the spirit of the public benefit mission of charitable nonprofits, let’s make a commitment to meet the challenges of the times by ensuring that we help create the next generation of nonprofit leaders. If the last 6 months have taught us anything, it is that adaptable, resilient, and ethical leaders are necessary now more than ever before; we have a chance to play a role in building a strong future by continuing to offer high-quality internship experiences.


About the author: Katy Hogan serves as the Director for Washington Programs for the John Glenn College of Public Affairs at Ohio State University. In this role, she oversees graduate and undergraduate intern programs in the nation’s capital. Many of her students intern with nonprofits and aspire to careers in the nonprofit sector. She and her team have worked to move their intern programs fully online for the academic year 2020-21, creating resources for intern partners and ensuring experiential education opportunities remain of high-quality for students and hosts through COVID-19. She is also a leader on the steering committee for the Washington Program Consortium, a forum for internship programs in Washington, DC. She can be reached at hogan.124@osu.edu.

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