Archive for the 'charity' Category

Seven internships and counting…is a career in international development worth it?

In my third year of a Religions and Theology degree, I knew I wanted to work in international development. And for this, I knew I’d need some experience. I applied for a part-time internship (… internship number 1) with an international inclusive education network located close to my University, which was a good few months and in hindsight provided me with very useful contacts and experience.

This internship also provided me with research and some editing experience and through doing it, I was offered some voluntary work on another NGO project. Naively I thought that this, combined with a gap year spent in Nepal, would be enough when I started my masters degree in international development. The MSc came and went and by this point I was 23 years-old and with an enormous career development loan debt. I applied for another internship in India (internship number 2) with a Dalit postgraduate learning centre.

I was fresh out of my MSc and back living with my parents, unable to afford to do much. My intention had been to move home after Uni and spend the 3 month gap between then and leaving for India doing temporary work (by this point I was well experienced in admin temping). No such luck. Despite a masters degree, lots of admin experience and voluntary work, I was considered too “over-qualified” for the positions I was applying for. The best I was offered was two weeks working in a factory. Eventually, and kindly, my parents offered to pay for my flight to India.

Internship number 2 was 3 months long and was, to be honest, a bit of a letdown. Very unstructured, no clear profile, etc. Myself and another foreign intern had to pay out own flights, visas and insurance and were paid a very, very small stipend (which was about half my monthly career development loan repayments for which I got into additional debt). Immediately after India, I went to Nepal for internships 3 and 4, working for a women’s rights network and a newspaper, respectively. At the former, I was provided with food and accommodation (which initially meant sharing a room with a teenager and a young child) and basically editing English documents. The second internship at a newspaper was very useful, but only paid a basic rate for articles I had published. They also, frustratingly, had a policy of not assisting non-Nepalis with visas. This meant no job at the end of the internship.

I returned to the UK for financial reasons and after two months of unemployment embarked on internship number 5 at a local newspaper. I was now 25. I initially worked 5 days a week, but they said this was too much of a commitment and reduced my days to 3. I received no travel or food allowance, despite effectively doing the same work as a junior reporter and writing a lot of copy. They had made it clear at the start that there was no chance of a job – but what else was I supposed to do? I wasn’t getting any of the admin jobs I was applying for and I needed some form of stimulation and outside interaction. I was 25, living at my parent’s place and splitting my dole money between paying my career development loan and paying travel costs to get to this internship. The really frustrating thing was the fact they didn’t even offer to pay for travel. I lasted 3 months and became very, very unhappy.

Increasing frustrations (shouting at the tv, becoming too bitter and cynical to read the newspapers, etc.), led me to start a development consultancy business, because I needed to do SOMETHING of value. And, I’d rather intern for myself than for someone else. And shortly after starting this, I was offered 3 months of private, well paid teaching work.

I then started what was effectively internship number 6 in May. This was done from home and involved editing work. It did involve one trip to London earlier in the year, which, of course, they didn’t offer to cover the travel for. I’ve received criticism from senior staff, too, and there has been a complete lack of guidance throughout. But, it looks good on the CV (which is all that matters for us desperate grads, right?)

So now… it’s October and last week I received news that I’ve been selected to go and work abroad for, yes, you guessed it… internship numero 7! Fortunately, they provide accommodation, a small stipend and food. Sadly, this means the money I saved from teaching over the summer will just about cover my career development loan for the six month period. It also means I won’t be able to come home for my best friend’s wedding… and, perhaps even worse, I’ll be 26 and still an intern (DOOM!)

Yes, I’ve done a lot and have quite a packed CV. But, it’s really not fair. Having your work consistently undervalued and it made me lose alot of confidence in myself and caused me to become very depressed. Sadly I know people in all too familiar situations who, like me, feel that we’ve been somehow cheated and are perpetually left out of an unjust and unfair system. It makes you want to scream…

BRAC Internships in Bangladesh

I am currently coming to the end of a 6 week ‘general’ internship with the Bangladeshi international development organisation BRAC and consequently feel qualified to offer some insights into the phenomenon of internships at home and abroad.

The first two weeks of the programme were essentially an orientation in the Dhaka headquarters, followed by three weeks of fieldwork in rural Bangladesh, before two more weeks in the capital.  

I should add that in this case I was participating in the first cycle of the internship programmes and as such probably felt the effects of a few ‘teething problems’ that subsequent interns might not have experienced. I graduated from University of Sheffield (BA East Asian Studies) in July 2008 and University of Manchester (MA International Development: Social Policy and Social Development) in September 2010.

I deliberated long and hard about whether or not to undertake a 6 week internship with an NGO on the other side of the world. In this case, interns were required to meet all their own accommodation, living and transport costs (including flights) and I estimate that this experience has set me back around £1000-£1200 in total i.e. a maxed-out overdraft. I was aware of these costs prior to making my application and considered this an expensive yet valuable addition to my CV. As per the application guidelines, I nominated a specific department within which I wanted to be placed for the duration of the 6 weeks (advocacy and social development). So far, so good.

Street scene in Dhaka

 Upon arrival at BRAC HQ in Dhaka the 21 interns eagerly collected their intern packs (security passes embellished with INTERN in big and important looking letters, a map of the city, a list of about a thousand emergency contact numbers…) We then learnt that there had been a slight change of plan. Owing to the unprecedented number of candidates that had been accepted onto this cycle, it would not be possible for everyone to tailor their internship to their specific chosen theme. The various interests and priorities of 21 individuals were to be covered by a broader ‘general’ programme whereby everyone, in theory, got to learn a little bit about each department’s work.

However, the “9 to 5” working schedule that we had all been told to expect never materialised and it became clear that BRAC hadn’t organised anywhere near enough to keep 21 motivated, energetic and frequently impressively qualified young people occupied. After sitting through a posterior-numbing week of interminable departmental presentations (whose content we could have probably learnt by reading the Annual Report ourselves) the question of expected outputs from the fieldwork component of the internship arose.

Dhaka cityscape

Myself and most others had expected to be involved in researching and producing serious ‘academic’ reports for presentation to department heads and had travelled to Bangladesh armed with laptops and armfuls of books to help us with our work. I refreshed my memory regarding the relative merits of qualitative and quantitative methodologies in development research, ready to put my postgraduate skills into practical use. Disappointingly, when the question of written reports and data collection arose, the internship co-ordinators seemed uninterested in getting us to do anything more than photograph, film and case-study the life out of anything that moved, all part of the giant refurbishment of the BRAC website. I tried to suppress the feeling that the internship programme represents a remarkably convenient way for the organisation to get unpaid foreigners to take on some of the organisation’s least glamorous tasks, all under the banner of having a ‘unique cultural experience’. After all, which up and coming member of the BRAC communications department wants to spend their evenings in a basic training and resources centre in an unfashionable rural backwater discussing hardcore poor latrines with the poverty-stricken masses when there is a new air-conditioned coffee shop to be discovered in the capital? The interns will do it – they like that sort of thing, it’s cultural.

The fieldwork component was similarly disappointing. Although we had been given printouts denoting a packed timetable of activities, we soon realised that there was a lot of ‘padding’ and we were frequently left with hours to kill as the day’s work ended early. When we did undertake visits to rural projects, we usually felt as though we were disrupting daily life as the entire village turned out to stare at us and scheduled meetings ground to a halt. We were certainly taking from them – taking photos left, right and centre – but what were they getting from us? Without projects to work on, we became listless and bored. The option of quitting the internship early to fly home began to be mooted amongst the interns.

The growing feeling of ‘why are we here?’ (apart from to ogle poor people) led us to conclude that we had unwittingly become ‘poverty tourists’ or participants in a grotesque ‘NGO safari’. Surely the original point of an internship was to allow a potentially viable candidate for employment within an organisation to ‘test the waters’ and impress those whose job they may one day occupy. In an organisation like BRAC which does not employ foreigners in its Bangladesh offices, all that an intern can stand to gain is an exposure to the workings of the organisation rather than a chance to get a job. Show and tell, if you like.

Upon returning to Dhaka, 5 of the original 21 interns decided to cut their losses and head home, changing flights to leave earlier than planned. The communications department hastily thought up four mini-projects to which individuals were then randomly assigned, whether or not these related at all to one’s area of interest or expertise. I do not consider the creation of a ‘visual mind map of the BRAC approach’ for example to be a sufficiently challenging task for postgraduate and PHD-level students. Consequently, myself and a few disillusioned others can now be found haunting Dhaka’s coffee shops, biding our time before we are able to fly home and sharing our experiences with Interns Anonymous so that others may avoid making similar expensive and disheartening mistakes.

Of course my experience hasn’t been entirely negative. I have been able to explore this country thanks to my participation on this internship programme and I have met a wonderful group of similarly-minded people who I will remain friends with for a long time. In an interview I can probably spin several positives out of this negative experience. However, in terms of gaining new skills or consolidating existing ones, I can honestly say I have achieved zero. A disastrous mismatch between interns’ expectations and the organisation’s ability to meet them has created profound dissatisfaction on this internship programme. What was promised was sadly never delivered and I would urge potential interns to thoroughly investigate the pedigree of a programme before making a commitment and, ideally, get in contact with some previous interns to hear the real story.

Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?

It’s like an organisation campaigning to highlight the effects of living in poverty paying their workers £10 a day…it’s a free ride, when you’ve already paid…

Thanks to the reader who brought this cracker to our attention, RESTLESS DEVELOPMENT, WHAT ARE YOU THINKING?

I just wanted to point out that Restless Development want to hire an intern for their ‘Live Below the Line’ campaign which challenges people to live on £1 a day. They will pay this intern only £10 a day for lunch and travel expenses ironically… Someone needs to tell Restless Development that the ‘line’ is relative.

Some lessons I have learned

I have a BA Hons degree in International Politics, and a Masters degree in Chinese Politics. I have been trying to pursue work primarily as a researcher, though I’ve applied for other opportunities that only barely correspond with my line of study.

In the last year, I have interned at two separate companies with very different standings. One was a UK wide charity, and the other a political pressure group running a campaign in the lead up to the last election. Although both my jobs were very different in their day to day responsibilities, I have found that there are many parallels between my two experiences. Rather than bore anyone with tales of the particular ins and outs of the jobs I did, I feel it would be more appropriate to keep this brief and try and impart some of the lessons I learned.

In both instances, while I did the right thing and was polite and gracious and thankful for the opportunity, I should have been much more forthright. Stand up for yourself.

Never forget that the employer would not be taking you on if they weren’t getting something out of it. This is not work experience, they are taking you on for a reason. Be grateful, but don’t be fooled into thinking you’re a charity case.

Make sure and forewarn your employer at your internship that they are inevitably going to receive a lot of requests for references from every job you subsequently apply for. Don’t be embarrassed to use up your goodwill, you worked hard for pennies in order to earn that reference.

Where possible, try and choose the name of the job that you do yourself. I describe my two positions as ‘Research intern’ and ‘Campaigns intern’ which are deliberately broad so as to be applicable to the maximum number of positions in the future.

Do not let an employer overpromise and underdeliver. If they say they’re going to give you training, or teach you how to do something, make sure they do. Hold them to it; they owe you that at least. In one of my internships the ‘Media training’ I was often promised was eventually scheduled on the one day in an entire month that I had informed head office that I couldn’t do. I was furious, but there was nothing I could do about it.

You will be expected to do menial and mundane tasks – filing, data entry, this sort of thing – this is par for the course. Do a good job and show that you can follow instructions and be part of a team. However, don’t be taken advantage of. You need to be able to learn how to do more than the basic things for your internship to have any value.

Don’t be afraid to claim things on expenses. I was too shy to claim things – silly things, such as balloons for a campaign event, or bus tickets if staying late made you miss a train. Don’t take advantage of expenses but don’t get ripped off.

The most important piece of advice I can give you is unfortunately the grimmest one, and that is, don’t presume that your Internship will lead directly to a job, either with the employer, or elsewhere. Sadly in my experience I’ve found that two long unpaid internships has not increased my employment chances, at least in terms of job opportunities since. What you need to do, and what I should have done better, was focus on genuinely gaining tangible skills that you need to do work in your field. Try and gain the confidence from completing tasks that you wouldn’t otherwise have been able to do. Be as selfish as you can and remember that the only reason you took a job for no money was to come out of it at the other side with better employment chances.

The intern’s dilemma

With interning I have been put in undesirable situations, both as an incumbent intern and one who is applying for other intern roles. I am presently an intern with a charity, and sometimes the anxiety I’m put through is so bad it’s comical. For example, there isn’t enough space in the office to place my own laptop somewhere near an electrical socket. I swear there must be some EU regulation about how much space a person needs, but since I’m not a paid employee the rules don’t seem to apply.

On some days I feel like a pariah who needs to be palmed off somewhere else in the office. I’m told politely that I need to ‘go away’ if the space is needed for a group assignment, but since space is limited, I need to fight to find another place which normally means negotiating with some other stressed out intern on a cramped desk. For a two month internship, I’m nearly on month five. I think that about two thirds of the people power in the office I’m in are interns.

My current dilemma is this: I’ve been offered an internship for a charity that does very important work with vulnerable people, and I could work somewhere that makes a difference. Unfortunately, because the expense stipend of the internship is limited and the fact that they are asking for 5 days a week, I may have to turn them down.

If I were in the internship for 5 days a week, it would mean that I would have to void my claim to jobseekers’ allowance because I cannot say that I am looking for work as much as is needed for the jobseeker’s agreement.

The Jobcentre Plus is not very sympathetic to internships, either; partly because the JCP does not understand graduates predicaments but also because of the demi-legal status of interns as employees. The ‘expense’ allowance that the company is offering is not comparable to the JSA in that the travel expenses will be cumbersome as it’s on the other side of the city. Doing this internship means making a sacrifice too financially great for the very uncertain prospect that they’d offer a job at the end of it. The situations that I am forced in as a current intern and as a prospective intern are slowly becoming unbearable. 

Confusion at the job centre

For more information on whether you can claim JSA whilst interning click here

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.

The official role is ‘administration intern’

I am presently an intern for a religious charity. The official role is ‘administration intern’. It’s neither paid, nor expenses covered. At least my bosses are nice.

Most of the internship consists of independently creating administrative systems for the organisation. All of the tasks require initiative on my part. The staff are unable to help me when I have problems, as most of my issues are largely technical and I am by default the office techie. I’m left alone to solve the computer problems.

The staff are very friendly and it was also a bit of a surprise how ‘Abercrombie & Fitch’ everyone looks (i.e. glamorous/trendy 20-somethings). I wouldn’t have thought working in a charity meant you had to look like you worked at Vogue. I feel a bit intimidated that I don’t look like a model, and how exceptionally young the senior staff are. Maybe I just expected more people over 35 in senior positions. I’ve not been there long enough to determine if it’s an ageist company but grey haired people are completely absent.

On the first day I was given a cultural sensitivity document detailing do’s and don’ts that weren’t so obvious such as Kosher and Halal dietary rules as well customs about how casual physical touching is unusual for some conservative groups (so don’t offer to shake another’s hand or casually touch them on the shoulder unless they do it first). That helped me avoid any faux pas. Once an intern came in with some McDonalds, and everyone gave her a dirty look. I’m glad that wasn’t me! The best thing is the atmosphere and the bizarre conversations that go on among the staff about 80s and 90s nostalgia, interspersed with serious conversation about deadlines and public events.

This internship has given me my confidence back after such a long period of unemployment, I realise the worth of my skills in the office. I help with financial records, I solve discrepancies in databases and sometimes I have advised on how to organise their finances! My bosses give me a lot of responsibility and free reign. The downside of this is that I don’t have support if I have a problem. Until I’ve properly set up their administrative infrastructure, I’m almost indispensable, which begs the question of ‘why am I not paid?


Interns Anonymous

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