Whilst reading about Derek Conway and the other MPs paying their own family for internships and work experience (even the Third Sector got briefly drawn in), I got thinking about how this related to the use of interns by third sector organisations, particularly in the fields of policy and research. As regular readers of this blog will know, SSE recently had an intern over from St Olaf College in Minnesota, which was pretty much an unqualified success. Using volunteers in this way can clearly make a substantial difference to an organisation like SSE whose capacity is still relatively small, if growing. And (I think) it can be a genuine win-win, with significant personal development, learning and contacts/networks for the intern in question.

The problem, which we have debated a fair bit internally, is how to ensure that this doesn’t run counter to our other principles: namely, the need for diversity in the third sector, the need for entrants and new leaders to come up from the grassroots as well as from the ‘grad-routes’. For, inevitably, for someone to take a full-time three-month position at an organisation in (usually) London, unpaid with (possibly) some expenses, they have to have support from elsewhere. This is usually parental, either in the form of direct monetary support, or in the form of free rent & board. Or they are in university full-time and can afford not to work during some of their holidays. Generally (and this is a generalisation), these means of support skew the potential intake to those with a more privileged or well-off background.

So how can we ensure internships go to a real cross-section, to the best people regardless of background? Clearly, bursaries and sponsorship is one way: some universities arrange placements and support expenses, such as identifying cheaper accommodation or directly paying expenses. In Thor’s case, this meant that he could afford to not do his restaurant manager job for a month in the holidays, and come to SSE.

But how to also extend these opportunities further out? Our neighbours Operation Black Vote recently won an award for an interesting shadowing scheme which focuses on political internships / work experience, precisely to avoid the old-boy networks we see continuing in those establishments;  these might provide a useful model; or something along the lines of this scheme, Leaders Together. Maybe there is a case for something similar in the third sector: funded internships that take the burden off the organisation and the individual to find the money to make it possible, and allow for a broader, more diverse intern network. Happy to hear of any such initiatives or ideas: there could be a social enterprise in this….

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