Is not for profit free work more ethical?

I did a three month communication internship with a charity that campaigns for women’s equality while studying full time for my Masters degree. As the Communications Intern at the organisation, I learnt a lot over those three months. Not once was I asked to do the stuff I’ve heard interns are often made to do – making tea/coffee, copying, printing etc. Instead it gave me my first office experience in London and I’m glad it turned out to be an invigorating and exciting one because with that internship, I started on a good note with working in London.

However, several months later, having recently completed my degree, I find myself unemployed. Of course, I understand it is owing to the economic downturn we’ve all been witnessing for a while. But this has put me in a dilemma – should I take up voluntary work again to gain some more experience? Unfortunately, that is not a very viable option for me. I only have a limited amount of money and it’s going to run out pretty soon given the expenses of living in London and then I won’t have a choice but to go back home and try to find some work there.

Anyway, apart from self pity, the main point of this post is to reflect on the very ethics of free work. The charity I had worked for was recently in need of volunteers to help them with stuffing envelopes and sending out mail for their fundraising appeal. They updated their facebook status asking their supporters to volunteer for a day to which a woman replied “Why don’t you hire a woman and pay her a decent wage for the day?” Her comment sparked off a discussion which, to summarise, came to focus on whether it’s more ethically and morally sound for charities and other organisations that are low on resources and funding to ask people to work for free for them than for big organisations or corporations.

While I would have to say that I certainly feel more at ease with myself working for a cause I am committed to than for a profit-making exploitative organisation, I don’t think I can defend not-for-profit charities for partaking in the free internships system. My contribution would happily go towards organisations or projects in which all the team members are working voluntary, for example new online magazines, blogs, projects or campaigns. Not-for-profit charities that can afford to pay some of their employees clearly do not come under the same category. However, since they have limited resources, they are a bit ‘excusable’.

But then, the question arises – if dearth of resources can be an acceptable excuse for hiring people to work for free for charities, couldn’t the same apply to profit-making corporations whose profits might not be enough to pay all of their employees especially in the season of economic recession? That obviously goes to show that it is not an acceptable excuse to make people work for free, be it for a profit-making corporation or a not-for-profit charity. The system of hiring people for free as interns is, as I see it, a very capitalist system that tries to ‘maximise’ the ‘efficiency’ of its resources by simply not paying some of its employees.

The only acceptable excuse that I believe charities could use is that they do not make profit out of people’s free work; instead they use free work to contribute towards the ‘cause’. But that still does not, in any way, justify their participation in and support to this capitalist system. Further, if that ‘cause’ is the fuelling force, why can’t paid employees work overtime to overcome the gap between the work they need to get done and the resources they have instead of hiring other people to work for free? I think that would surely be more justifiable since the paid employees would be getting at least some money for that work. That not-for-profit organisations encourage the internship system instead of ‘motivating’ their paid employees to work more/longer clearly implies that they are equally guilty of sustaining this abominable and exploitative free work system.

I would love to know what other people think about it.

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10 Responses to “Is not for profit free work more ethical?”

  1. 1 carruthers 09/22/2010 at 5:45 pm

    I’ve been doing an internship for a charity for just over three months and I really enjoy it and support the work they do but it’s now getting to the point that I’m broke and facing potential eviction. I want to suggest to them that they pay me for at least the next 3 months but realise that as a charity they’re currently short on funding. Ironically I’m doing policy and research on employment programmes for disadvantaged groups, it’s a bizarre post bleeding modern double bind init guv? And so far I’ve had not a whisper of a reply from the jobs I’ve applied for! I’ll report back on my discussions…

  2. 3 Carruthers 09/25/2010 at 10:22 pm

    Got an interview for a job i don’t really want to do next Friday. Going to discuss my options with my boss at the charity, maybe this will be act as leverage! One good thing, they’re going to say me for a 1500 word article (although lower than NUJ rates).

  3. 6 Carruthers 09/27/2010 at 8:53 pm

    Rereading your original piece, if the charity is being funded to carry out some research and is willing to pay an academic to do some aspect of the work, should they also pay the person doing the preliminary research? Tricky, not sure if i should bring that up. The job that i’m being interviewed for is a step back for me but, heck, it’s work! Decisions, decisions.

  4. 7 Alphabetti 10/06/2010 at 5:16 pm

    Someone linked this to me and I felt compelled to comment.

    Whilst I have serious reservations about unpaid internships, for the reasons outlined in this post and elsewhere, I am astounded that the author of this post asks “why can’t paid employees work overtime to overcome the gap between the work they need to get done and the resources they have instead of hiring other people to work for free?” Quite apart for the legal duty employers have not to force their employers to exceed unreasonable working hours (i.e: EU Working Time Directives), there is a moral obligation on employers not to encourage the insane long hours working culture on which the UK economy currently runs. It is inherently anti-equal opportunities to suggest this: long hours cultures discriminate against carers (parents, those with elderly or disabled relatives) and those with a disability themselves that would prevent them from competing in the kind of workplace you suggest.

    To give a bit of background, I have worked both as an intern and in a paid capacity within the third sector. As a paid employee, I frequently work over my contracted hours, not because my employers force me to, but because I love my job and my organisation and know that if I don’t, the work that I believe in won’t get done. The charity sector is often hugely overstretched, with paid employees doing the work of 2 or more posts in order to get the job done, and for a lot less money than if we took our talents to the private sector. Is the author of this post honestly suggesting that my pay packet means that every last drop of staffing power should be wrung out of me, regardless of my health and well-being? Whilst a wage is nice, and I hugely appreciate my luck in no longer having to work as an unpaid intern, it does not mean I am fair game for exploitation.

    More than this, I feel uncomfortable at the “us versus them” tone that your argument takes. Many paid workers in the third sector share your concerns – we are your allies, not your enemy to be treated with suspicion.

  5. 8 Asiya 10/10/2010 at 1:10 pm

    Hi Alphabetti

    I didn’t mean to argue that paid workers should be forced to work overtime. The only point I was trying to make is that it has become really convenient for organisations to employ workers for free through the internship system. In other words, organisations find it easier to increase their ‘productivity’ by having interns work for them than by getting the ‘most’ out of their paid employees, not that the second option is any more justified than the first one.

    And I apologise if the tone of the article came across as ‘us versus them’. I certainly didn’t mean it to be so, maybe it was just my resentment seeping in there!



  6. 9 Asiya 10/10/2010 at 1:12 pm


    I would definitely say that the person doing the preliminary research should be paid as well in tandem with the amount of contribution he/she is making.


  7. 10 Steve 02/26/2011 at 6:28 pm

    As a trustee of a small medical research charity, based in Southampton, I believe it to be unethical and unlawful to use internships without at least paying minimum wages; or failing to help develop real work skills; or providing references.

    At a trustees’ meeting of the charity I would not support any exploitation of an intern. Charities rely on donations, bequests, and fundraising by individuals and groups – and, undoubtedly, many of these have sons and daughters, or grandchildren, seeking internships and would be horrified if the charity itself showed the worst attributes of exploitation.

    I would like to see Interns Anonymous and/or Internocracy develop a kitemark for organisations, for display when advertising, who are willing and prepared to meet standards acceptable to interns.

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