As a student who lives in Washington, DC, year-round, it’s funny to see how the city changes once the summer interns arrive. After Memorial Day, the sidewalks are full of nervous, bright-eyed college students wandering around the city with their eyes glued to the maps app on their phones, hoping they don’t get lost on their first day of work.
Whether I meet them on the Metro or at networking events, I’ve found that most of these interns have a genuine interest in getting to know the city better and, like myself, are desperately searching for what purpose they can serve in the professional world. Although they come from all over the country and intern in different sectors, there is one thing they all have in common: they love to ask me the same questions when I tell them I intern at a nonprofit.
“Oh, so you’re a volunteer?”
This is a common misconception for nonprofit interns and employees alike. Although volunteering and nonprofits go hand in hand, that doesn’t mean all nonprofit work is volunteering. Just like a for-profit business, nonprofits need people to do accounting, marketing, management, and more. Volunteers may deliver direct services at an organization, but organizational and financial duties come from full-time nonprofit professionals.
That’s not to say you can’t be both a nonprofit intern and a volunteer. Everyone I work with finds time to volunteer outside of his or her full-time job. It’s important, however, to understand there is a difference between interning for a nonprofit and volunteering for one. The National Council of Nonprofits clarifies that the distinction depends on whether or not an intern receives compensation for his or her work.
“You’re not getting paid though, are you?”
The assumption that nonprofit interns are volunteers is often accompanied by the assumption that all nonprofit interns are unpaid, but unpaid internships are not unique to the nonprofit sector. In fact, my unpaid internships were at a newsroom and a marketing firm, not at a nonprofit organization. It shows that the compensation you receive as an intern depends solely on the position and the organization you’re interning for, not the sector you’re working in. Additionally, it’s important to remember that an unpaid internship doesn’t make your experience or your qualifications any less valuable, and you can learn just as much, if not more, in an unpaid position.
“Good luck finding a job after graduation.”
This is usually followed with a laugh, as if I have destined myself to a future of unemployment by focusing my time and energy on the nonprofit sector. The nonprofit sector isn’t a dying industry, however. If anything, the sector is continually developing the role it plays for the public.
The number of nonprofits hiring increased by 7 percent in 2016, and 57 percent of nonprofits anticipated creating new positions, according to the Nonprofit HR Employment Practices Survey. Compared to the 36 percent of for-profit companies planning to hire in 2016, it’s not surprising for recent graduates to pursue a career with one of the more than 1.6 million nonprofit organizations in the United States. Additionally, starting salaries are similar across for-profit, nonprofit, and government positions. If you’re a nonprofit intern, I wouldn’t let these sly comments discourage you from pursuing a career you are passionate about.
“What do you do? Save puppies? Feed starving children?”
When someone asks me what nonprofit I work for, nothing confuses them more than when I tell them GuideStar is a nonprofit information service. They want a short, sweet answer like “Our organization saves dogs.” They aren’t usually expecting to hear about the importance of nonprofit transparency.
Many people think all nonprofit work is direct service and hands-on, but they forget about the other kinds of organizations that make up the nonprofit sector. Although animal rescues and educational organizations are prominent nonprofits, the sector also includes foundations, advocacy groups, trade associations, and religious institutions. The visibility of a nonprofit’s work to the public doesn’t determine its value or significance, and there are many successful organizations whose work the public doesn’t see.
“Nonprofits are too political”
I could respond to this by explaining the differences between a 501(c)(3) public charity like GuideStar and a 501(c)(4), 501(c)(5), and 501(c)(6) organizations in terms of political activity and lobbying. Because most people stop listening to me after my nonprofit transparency tangent, I usually keep it simple and answer by saying GuideStar is a nonpartisan organization. My colleagues and I have our own views and beliefs, but we keep our political leanings separate from our work. Even partisan organizations aren’t allowed to fundraise for or endorse political candidates.
“That’s cool. Tell me more.”
This is by far my favorite response. For every time someone makes an incorrect assumption about the nonprofit sector, 10 more people will ask me to tell them more about it. The optimist in me sees these responses as a sign that, even if their perceptions are clouded in misconceptions, most people are willing to learn more.
As is true in any job, people who work in the nonprofit sector will have different answers to each of these questions. Each job, each internship, and each organization is unique. The variety of the nonprofit sector prevents me from delivering a one-size-fits-all answer to these questions, but that same variety is what makes work in the nonprofit sector rich, meaningful, and rewarding.
Abbie Wade is a communications coordinator for GuideStar. She is currently a rising senior at The George Washington University, studying Journalism & Mass Communication and Political Science.