Tag Archives: job

Skills & experience, unpaid, are still skills & experience

“A few of our volunteers have been listing their experience with us on their résumés, as though this was paid work, so we’ve asked them to stop doing that.”

She said this to me with a look of I’m sure you understand. I didn’t.

“You mean they listed their role at your organization, the name of your organization, the list of their responsibilities and their accomplishments at your organization?” I asked.

“Yes!” she said, “As though it was a job!”

And I said, “Why is that a problem?”

She said, “Because they were just volunteers! You don’t list that on your résumé!”


As I said in a previous blog, a marketing director is defined by the scope of his or her responsibilities – not a pay rate. Paid or not, you call such a person a marketing director. An executive director is defined by the scope of his or her responsibilities – not a pay rate. Paid or not, you call such a person an executive director.

If a person has a role at your organization, with a title and responsibilities, and that person has met goals / accomplished things as a result of his or her work at your organization, paid or unpaid, that person has EVERY right to put that experience on his or her résumé! The person should also say if the role was part-time (5 hours a week? 10? 20?) and to whom he or she reports/reported (the marketing director? the executive director? the manager of volunteers?). You should do all that for PAID jobs as well.

Should the person say if the role is paid or unpaid on his or her résumé? I keep trying to imagine a scenario where a person should, absolutely, say he or she was/is a volunteer in that role on his or her résumé, and I cannot think of one. Certainly if you are asked how much you were paid for each job, and you are filling out that information for each job, you should be just as transparent, and write $0.

And maybe you want to brag about having been a volunteer, specifically. I was just an employee of the United Nations Volunteers, I never had the honor of serving as a UN Volunteer – I was merely an employee who supported UNVs in the field (I really did say this when I worked at UNV, and it was hilarious to see the reactions from paid staff who worked so hard to tell people, “Oh, no, I’m an employee, I’m not a volunteer!”). If I did have the honor of serving as a UNV, I would make absolutely SURE it was clear on my CV that, indeed, I’d made the cut and been an actual UNV. Of course, that’s my way of thinking – by contrast, a lot of UNVs list their field work title on their CVs (Youth Program Director, HIV/AIDS Community Educator, etc.) and that their employer was UNDP, rather than UNV, to distance themselves as much as possible from the term volunteer – sad, but true.

When I am an employer, I look at experience, skills, training and accomplishments, period. I don’t care if the candidate did anything as a paid employee, a paid contractor or an unpaid volunteer – I want to see what they’ve done and what they can do. Whether they were paid to do it or not is irrelavent to me.

And you?

Also see:

what’s most important about software experience

Back in the mid 1990s, when I found myself jobless and was temping, my agency sent me to fill in for an executive administrative assistant that was going on vacation for two weeks. I read over the job description, and it said I needed to know Microsoft Powerpoint. I looked at the recruiter and said, “Oh, I haven’t used this much. I’ve used Aldus Persuasion for slide show presentations.” She shook her head and said, “Same thing. You know that, you’ll do fine with PowerPoint.” I went to the job terrified they’d boot me as soon as they figured out that I didn’t know Powerpoint. But the recruiter was right: it was most important that I knew how to lay out a slide show presentation properly; I figured out PowerPoint in just a few minutes, and put together slide show presentations for two weeks per the company’s specifications.

I’ve taken one software class in my life: it was for a new version of Aldus Pagemaker (oh, how I loved Aldus products back in the 1990s!). The class was all about how you did things differently in this version versus the last version – but it didn’t teach me anything about design. And during that hour-long class, I realized I could have figured everything out about the upgrade on my own – a book about the upgrade would have been cheaper, and always there, ready for reference.

I bring this up because of a discussion on an online community where someone said they were from a nonprofit that didn’t have the money to upgrade to the latest version of Microsoft Office, a very old version of which they used to train their clients regarding how to prepare résumés, write formal correspondence, create simple business documents, etc. I responded that a great alternative for this nonprofit was OpenOffice or LibreOffice, both of which are free, both of which provide very powerful word processing, slide show/presentation, spreadsheet and database software, both of which are frequently updated, etc. I use OpenOffice myself.

Other people thought that the advice was outrageous, that if this nonprofit were to use anything but Microsoft, it would handicap their clients. But I stand by my advice: what’s important is not to teach someone how to use Microsoft Word or Microsoft anything. What’s important is for people to understand all that office software can do, such as in a document:

  • using fonts appropriately
  • setting tabs and margins
  • creating and editing tables
  • adding headers and footers
  • recording and showing, or hiding or accepting, edits by other people
  • creating mail merges
  • etc.

What’s MOST important is that you understand the capabilities of word processing software, spreadsheet software, presentation software, web page creation software, etc. – having that understanding means you will be able to learn to use future versions of the software or most any software produced by a different company that is designed to do what you want done, whether it’s to create a document or a web page or a database, whatever.

I bring this up not only because of that online community debate, but also because I see so many job postings asking just for advanced experience with Excel – rather than asking for experience with creating calculations on spreadsheets or producing a variety of graphs using statistical data. Or someone asking for experience with such-and-such database instead of asking for experience creating fields or customized reports in a database.

Another software skill that is just as important: ability to learn new functions on upgraded software or ability to learn new software quickly or ability to figure out new software/upgrades, because software changes. And changes and changes. It gets upgraded. The IT manager decides to use something different. The price gets too high and some board member can get a special deal on something different.

Give me a nimble learner over someone with 10 years of experience with ANY one software package! Give me a person who understands the basics of document design who has used a typesetter and hot wax for the past 20 years over someone who knows how to use Microsoft PowerPoint to create really ugly slide show presentations!

Also see:

Embrace FOSS and Open Source

When to NOT pay interns

A marketing director is defined by the scope of his or her responsibilities – not a pay rate. Paid or not, you call such a person a marketing director.

An executive director is defined by the scope of his or her responsibilities – not a pay rate. Paid or not, you call such a person an executive director.

A firefighter is defined by the scope of his or her responsibilities and training – not a pay rate. Volunteers can be – and often are – firefighters, despite what the union of professional firefighters wants you to believe.

Often, the term volunteer really is just a pay rate, not a job title. If someone has responsibilities on behalf of an organization, but isn’t paid, he or she is a volunteer. Yet a lot of people have a problem with that label as a classification, like these interns who are upset about not being paid. Call them volunteers, and they have a minor freak out. But that’s what they are – they are volunteers, because they aren’t paid.

The debate should be this: SHOULD interns be volunteers?

What these unpaid interns that are so upset about being labeled volunteers don’t seem to get is that I’m actually on their side: I think they should be paid. They should be employees or short-term consultants, no question. Why? Because

  • the organizations they work for do not have a mission statement for their involvement of unpaid staff (volunteers),
  • the organizations do not have, in writing, why they reserves certain positions and tasks and responsibilities specifically for volunteers rather than employees or paid consultants,
  • the organizations say they don’t pay volunteers because they “can’t afford to” – and as you know, those are fighting words when it comes to saying why you involve volunteers.

May internships be unpaid? Sure! But there must be a stated reason that is not “because we don’t have money to pay them.” That’s just pure exploitation, period.

I worked at a certain very large international NGO that shall remain nameless that was involving unpaid interns in large numbers – and I felt it was incredibly exploitative: nothing was in writing, and people held unpaid internships for months and months for no dicernable reason other than that they were free labor and so desperate for the experience that they made no demands. I didn’t have the power to change the intern policy throughout the organization, but I did for my own department. And here’s the parameters I established that all staff in our department had to adhere to regarding involving unpaid interns:

  • An internship had to have a primary focus on giving the intern a learning experience, not  getting tasks done. Therefore:
    • There had to be a written job description that reflected this primary purpose of the internship.
    • The intern was invited to all agency-wide staff meetings, all staff meetings for just our department, and encouraged to ask to attend staff meetings for other departments, to learn about work across the agency. Staff were encouraged to take interns with them to meetings or events whenever possible, as appropriate.
    • The intern also had one project that was uniquely his or hers, that he or she was responsible for and could put on his or her résumé (for instance, conducting a survey, or evaluating some process and making recommendations for improvement).
    • The intern received job coaching and job search help by other staff members.
  • A person chosen for the internship had to be able to say why they wanted to enter into a profession related to our agency’s work, and say what they had done up to that point, in terms of education, volunteer work and paid work, to pursue that career choice.
  • A person could hold an internship only for up to six months. They absolutely could not hold it beyond six months, no exceptions. An intern could NOT return to our department as an intern again, ever. That reduced the chance of a person being exploited as free labor; it forced rotation in what was supposed to be a role reserved for people learning about our work, not the opportunity for someone to have an unpaid assistant indefinitely.
  • Ideally, the intern that was leaving would overlap with the intern that was coming in by one week, so that the departing intern could get experience training someone, documenting his or her responsibilities, etc.
  • When the intern left, he or she was interviewed about his or her experience as an intern from the point of view of getting the learning and professional development he or she was looking for, and this was used to continually improve internship involvement and to show if interns were getting what our internship promised: a learning experience.

The primary task we reserved for interns was answering the many, many emails that came in regarding an online program by our agency. We found that interns really were the best people for this task: in contrast to giving this task to employees, interns brought freshness and enthusiasm to responses that really shown through. They quickly saw patterns in questions or comments that a burned out staff person might not see, leading to adjustments to web site information and other communications. Also, in my opinion, because the interns were volunteers, they assumed a much stronger customer-advocate point-of-view regarding the people emailing with questions or comments than employees did; the agency could have a real seige-mentality outlook when dealing with anyone outside the organization, while the interns had a mentality of being advocates for those outside the organization.

As I mentioned, I also came up with tasks specifically for an intern to own. It might be an internal staff survey, a customer/client survey, a research project, an evaluation/analysis project, production of a report or online resource, etc. Every intern walked away something that was his or hers, a project that he or her directed or managed or lead, and that employees and other interns contributed to. That gave interns the management experience so many were desperate for.

The problem with having these internships as unpaid: it meant that anyone who couldn’t afford to move to our geographic area and work at least 20 hours a week, unpaid, couldn’t be an intern. That excluded a lot of qualified people. It meant all of our interns were from the USA or Europe. It meant qualified people who couldn’t afford to volunteer (work unpaid) couldn’t be interns. I tried creating online internships specifically for these people, but sadly, we never got qualified candidates to apply for those – though I’ve wondered if there was just too much skepticism about an online internship being a real internship – perhaps it would be easier now.

One last note: yes, I’ve been an intern. I had a summer-long internship at a for-profit newspaper between my sophomore and junior year at university, and I was paid – and it met almost all of the parameters I think an internship should have, paid or not, that I’ve outlined above. I had a year-long internship during senior at my university, at a nonprofit arts center, and I was paid and, again, the role met almost all of the parameters I think an internship should have, paid or not, that I’ve outlined above. My last internship was a summer-long gig after I graduated, at a nonprofit theater, and I was not paid – but, indeed, the role met almost all of the parameters I think an internship should have, paid or not, that I’ve outlined above. None of those internships guaranteed me eventual employment, but they all did end up helping me get the experience and networks I needed for eventual full-time employment. All three organizations, including the for-profit company, looked at their intern involvement as a way of giving back, of cultivating young people into specific professions.

The newspaper paid me because it had to; as a for-profit business, it couldn’t involve unpaid staff. The nonprofit arts organization paid me because they could; they got a grant from the state to do so. The theater didn’t pay me because felt they were offering young people free education and a potential job connection network that aspiring actors, production staff and administration staff couldn’t buy if they had wanted to – not kidding! There was also this you-have-to-survive-this-trial-by-fire-to-work-in-theater attitude that those of us who did survive such wore like a badge of honor. I look back on that experience and, as much as I want to say I was exploited… I do feel like I got experience and connections I could never have gotten otherwise, that the organization really did do me a favor.

Also see:

This article in the New York Times about interns.

Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act (USA)
This PDF fact sheet provides general information to help determine whether interns must be paid the minimum wage and overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act in the USA

Social Inequity and the Unpaid Intern

The blog unfairinternships.wordpress.com