It’s real: the unpaid internships & volunteers controversy

Believe it or not, there are people that do not believe there is an ongoing, at times impassioned, debate as to whether or not unpaid interns supporting charities, nonprofits or non-government organizations (NGOs) are volunteers. These non-believers say that the issue is resolved – that unpaid interns aren’t volunteers, and that’s that. These non-believers are the same people that also do not believe that employees or executives on loan, pro bono consultants, or people doing community service for a court or a class at mission-based organizations are volunteers. Their definition of volunteer is extremely limited: the term is to be used only for people that donate time primarily out of the goodness of their heart, with NO expectations of benefits like job skills development, career exploration, social connections, etc.. For them, the motivation of the person defines volunteer, not their pay status or the reason the role was reserved specifically for unpaid staff.

The reality, however, is that there is a very real, ongoing debate among those that advocate for and research volunteerism, those that involve volunteers, and volunteers themselves, about who is and isn’t a volunteer, including debate regarding whether or not unpaid interns should be considered volunteers.

If you know me, you know that I’m firmly in the big tent camp: of course unpaid interns at nonprofits, charities, NGOs, schools and other mission-based organizations are volunteers, just as employees or executives on loan, pro bono consultants, or people doing community service for a court or a class at such organizations are volunteers, just as people who are volunteering primarily to improve their employability or explore careers or making social connections are still volunteers. However, I also know that not everyone thinks that way, and fully acknowledge that this is an ongoing debate – that there are people with differing opinions on the issue.

Some of my previous blogs on the subject, with links to articles about how this is an ongoing controversy (and not just in the USA) include:

As the first link notes, this is not just a problem in the USA: there is not universal agreement in other countries either about unpaid interns as volunteers.

For instance, the European Volunteer Centre feels that unpaid internships are

mistakenly perceived to be or even presented as volunteering.”

Yet CEV also says that

Volunteering is an outstanding source of learning and a contributor to personal and professional development. CEV considers it important to recognize volunteering as a source of non-formal and informal learning, while keeping a balance in order not to move the focus from the benefit to others to the benefit of the individual in the form of qualifications or recognition of skills.”

Do you see the contradiction? Of course all mission-based organizations have a primary focus on benefiting others or the environment, rather than benefitting any individual, including employees and unpaid staff (volunteers), but any organization of quality will also have a second or tertiary priority of supporting staff – paid employees and unpaid volunteers – in expanding their qualifications or skills. Also, the reality is that there are a LOT of volunteers who are donating service primarily to benefit themselves in terms of skills development, career exploration, job connections, social connections, having fun, and on and on – those motivations don’t make them any less of a volunteer than the person that is there primarily out of the goodness of the heart (which I remain unconvinced any volunteer actually does, primarily, but that’s another blog).

The ILO’s Manual on the measurement of volunteer work is similarly confusing, saying

Volunteers may receive non-monetary benefits from volunteering in the form of skills development, social connections, job contacts, social standing and a feeling of self- worth (p. 14)

But then, later on that same page, saying

Unpaid apprenticeships required for entry into a job and internships and student volunteer work required for graduation or continuation in a school or training programme violate the non-compulsory feature of the definition and should therefore not be considered as volunteer work. (ILO 2011 p. 14)

On the UKVPMs online discussion group for managers of volunteers in the United Kingdom, debate on this subject happened as recently as December 20121. The longest debate on UKVPMs happened in July 2011, with more than 50 messages and more than a dozen people debating the issue2.

Controversies regarding unpaid interns can easily be found in newspaper articles and on Twitter, and further discussions regarding the controversies and emotions on this subject can be found in the comments section beneath most of these online articles, such as these, all retrieved in July 2013 (URLs provided in text in case links no longer work, in which case, type such into

Brussels army of ‘slave’ trainees escapes EU gaze, Reuters, June 27, 2013
Retrieved from The European Commission offers some 1,400 sought-after five-month traineeships a year… Yet the pay is well below the Belgian minimum wage requirement of 1,500 euros per month. Many other advertised positions offer monthly stipends of a few hundred euros and sometimes nothing at all. Traineeships are supposed to provide training, but the line between that and actual employment is often blurred.

Are charities’ unpaid interns really ‘volunteers’?
A legal loophole means charities needn’t pay their interns. But pricing graduates out of the sector is damaging and unfair, The Guardian, 28 June 2011
Retrieved from
“You have to be rich to work for a charity now,” an intern told me recently. “I’m passionate about helping others but after six months of unpaid work it’s a luxury I can’t afford any more. So I’m giving up to do something else.”

NUJ wins first unpaid internship tribunal, The Drum, May 2011
Retrieved from
Payment for interns looks likely to become a reality as the National Union of Journalists celebrates having successfully sued TPG Web Publishing to pay a member who had untaken an unpaid internship at the company.

There are consequences for this confusion: unpaid interns are mobilizing and voicing their own concerns about their employment status and treatment – and not just at for-profit companies, but at nonprofits and NGOs. There are at least seven Twitter accounts representing the interests of such unpaid interns:

@HagueInterns – Hague Interns Association. “HIA is an association of interns working at UN-related and intergov’t orgs in The Hague. We work to improve intern welfare & promote intern rights.”

@UnpaidIsUnfair – “Unpaid internships are unfair. The United Nations should be no exception. Please sign our petition and tell the UN that young people matter.”

@EricGlatt – Interns ≠ Free Labor. “Working to end #wagetheft guised as #unpaidinternships. Law student & Public Interest Fellow at Georgetown.”

@InternLabor – Intern Labor Rights. “In this era of historic inequality, class divide, soaring student debt and persistent unemployment we call for an end to unpaid internships: Pay your interns!”

@FairPayCampaign – Join the fight to end unpaid internships in the U.S.A. Launching Summer 2013.

@canadianinterns – “The Canadian Intern Association advocates against the exploitation of interns and aims to improve the internship experience for both interns and employers.”

@InternJustice – “Protecting the rights and wages of interns.”

The debate regarding whether or not unpaid interns at charities, nonprofits, NGOs and other organizations are volunteers doesn’t just complicate discussions about volunteerism; it also complicates discussions and policies about volunteering as a tool for increasing marketable skills or career exploration, especially for young people.

Author, researcher and trainer Susan Ellis, who has authored or co-authored of 12 books related to volunteer management, researched and written more than 120 articles on volunteer management for dozens of publications, trains worldwide regarding volunteerism, and founded the largest publisher of volunteerism-related books, addresses this debate regularly. For instance, in this November 2004 “Hot Topic” blog, she notes:

It’s fine to distinguish specific challenging volunteer assignments that need to be filled by qualified people with more-than-average hours available per week. But why not make these available to anyone willing and able to meet the requirements – not just students? Think about the illogic of assuming that a student, often quite inexperienced, can fulfill an intensive role just because s/he is a student, while an adult “volunteer” who may be truly qualified is relegated to less consequential tasks simply because of being placed into a different category of worker.

Further, the skill necessary to create a meaningful “internship” is exactly the same task analysis that ought to be brought to any work designed for volunteers. It might even elicit more creativity if staff were asked to develop volunteer roles that allowed the doer to grow and learn – at any age and for any reason…

Maybe it’s time to examine our own reactions to the words volunteer and intern. Both are descriptors, not job titles. Neither really tells us what the person is actually doing, nor necessarily the skills the person brings. But if one connotes nice helper to you and the other connotes serious learner, ask yourself why both can’t be both. Then ask yourself whether the distinction has been made in your agency mainly to professionalize internships… and why that wouldn’t be positive as an approach to all volunteered assistance. (Ellis 2004).

Ellis’s blog resulted in more than 20 comments, some from Europe, from both organisations and interns, further demonstrating that there is not universal agreement regarding the status of unpaid interns as volunteers.

This is a real controversy, and the issue remains unresolved. The next time someone tries to tell you there is no debate on this subject, that the issue is resolved, even in Europe, feel free to share the information in this blog!


1 UKVPMs Messages 8992 to 9005, most under the subject line “volunteering vs unpaid internships – the debate continues.”

2 UKVPMs Most of the messages between 7846 through 7909, under the subject lines “Who is a volunteer and who isn’t?” and “Should charities offer unpaid internships?”

Also see this web page, Online & print articles about or addressing controversies regarding volunteers replacing paid staff, and these blog posts:

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