How do interns fit into the social enterprise movement?

In the welfare-state utopia that is Scandinavia, there is a saying that goes, "give the youngsters a computer before football gets to them," alluding to the ever-dominant role the sport plays in Scandinavian society. In the world of social enterprise, perhaps it is time we adopt a similar approach: "give young people a purposeful career before the corporates get to them." Step one? Adopt an intern.

As a twenty-year old college student I was lost in what to do with my life. Like many of my peers I was young, idealistic beyond belief and equipped with a hard work-ethic. However, what I lacked were hard skills, proper levels of pragmatism, and a realistic view on how to 'change the world'. Then I got the opportunity to intern for a month with a social entrepreneurship organisation, which took me in, nurtured my confidence and taught me about how social enterprise practitioners apply idealism. A year and a half later this experience has put me on track for a career that mixes purpose with professionalism, work with an outside life, and idealism with pragmatism. While there are many similar stories out there, there is still a large gap between the many young interns who stand ready to join small social enterprises, and those who actually gain the opportunity to work. Why? Here are a few hypothetical claims…

– Small social enterprises or NGOs often lack the funding to bring in an intern, even for part-time. As far as I know, outside funding alternatives specifically aimed at bringing in interns are few and far between.

– Prospective interns often have no idea where to begin their job search. Finding a small social enterprise is hard enough, finding one that can afford them and is willing to go through the process of hiring an intern is virtually impossible.

– Small social enterprises are not proactive enough in searching for interns. Many organisations want trained employees, and fail to see value of fresh perspectives and the hard work-ethic interns often bring to the table.

– Prospective interns prefer big organisations or well-known employers. In looking an internship with a name-brand business, they often do not see that with a small NGO they will receive greater responsibility, more advanced tasks, and ultimately, greater skills.

– Students are often limited for time in that they can only do internships that last for one to four months. A lot of organisations prefer longer contracts to make it a more useful learning experience for intern, but also because it gives the intern a greater opportunity to make a positive impact on the NGO. 

Surely other factors play a role as well, but these stand out to me as particularly limiting.

Why is it important to defy these factors and make a conscious effort to recruit more interns? As is widely accepted, not everyone could, or should, be a social entrepreneur. However, there are plenty of young men and women who still want to partake in social enterprise, and who want to make a positive impact on their society. In this sense, second-tier organisations might be a perfect fit. NGOs often prioritize the day-to-day tasks over long-term projects that involve research, updating of databases, technological innovation – they just fall by the waste side. Ironically these features are essential in moving the sector forward, through strong networks, new initiatives, a deeper understanding of complex issues, and organisational growth.

If you work for a small social enterprise and you are looking for an intern, what do you do? SSE was lucky enough to be approached by an American college, looking to set up a sustainable internship relationship. This coming January, SSE will welcome its third intern from St. Olaf College. Looking for such a partner might be a good first step – loads of schools are filled with competent young men and women, ready to enter the sector and contribute to its growth and development. While it might be time-consuming and not directly beneficial for your organisation to adopt an intern, it might be essential for the social enterprise movement. Youth is an essential ingredient to a successful sector in the future.    


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4 thoughts on “How do interns fit into the social enterprise movement?

  1. Interesting post Nick. It’s worth linking people to the debate on New Start’s blog, which you contributed to too:
    Sorry to be the grumpy one but there is of course a downside to internships for those of us who as 20somethings didn’t have family in London or money to support us through the internship. I know I always go on about London-centredness, but I remember wanting to get into development charities in my early 20s, most of which, of course, are based in London. I had no chance – but would have had a good chance if I’d been born in London, and could therefore take the hit and work for free for a bit.
    The solution? I don’t know. Maybe we’ll get a Future Interns Fund next. But the starting point is to acknowledge that there’s an issue – particularly around social mobility.

  2. Thanks Rob. Although the post was written by our intern-turned-temporary employee Thor from Norway. The one I refer to in the comment on Jamie Veitch’s post on New Start here:
    That social mobility issue is a huge one, as my comment makes clear; so I agree with much of what you say. Without the support of his university (who helped pay accommodation etc), Thor wouldn’t have been able to come on the internship in the first place. Although, in working with a university, you could argue we were already helping those with an advantage (even if the college is a little known one); although with 50% of people going to university, less so than it was. I was delighted to bring Thor back and pay him for the summer, which has been a great success from our point of view (and his, I hope). He certainly wouldn’t have been able to come over and work for free.
    We certainly try to be thoughtful and considered on this topic. Because, in many ways, it reflects what our programme sets out to do. As Liam points out in his comment on your post (, “enabling people to break into networks that can advance them” is a crucial part of allowing people to transform their own lives. That’s why, although people concentrate on the job creation, turnover, survival rate stats from our evaluation (, the most important (arguably) is that over 50% of SSE Fellows have made 10 or more useful contacts that they attribute directly to SSE. Further than that, the report actually says that SSE Fellows are “guaranteed” to make practically useful contacts on the programme. And with our diversity of intake, that’s a massive part of the change we make.

  3. A very poignant post. Quite topical as well, with record unemployment and demand for social enterprise why not tap this resource?
    Coming from a perspective within the US, where we have , our federal internship placement organization. With the passing of the serve america act, we now have much more available placements. But still, these issues of dissemination of truly making this process a transformational process in itself. Truly tapping the potential that these barriers block, I feel, is a very necessary innovation in ALL organizations.