What I Learned from My Nonprofit Internship

What I Learned from My Nonprofit InternshipAfter 16 years of schooling, there is nothing more boring for me than sitting at a desk and taking notes. Something I love about internships is learning through real world experiences, rather than through a book. Internships have allowed me to try on multiple “hats” as I’ve narrowed my career interests and developed my professional skills.

When I first started at GuideStar 11 months ago, I was a different person. The work I’ve done, the people I’ve met, and the opportunities I’ve been given have shaped the way I think about myself and my future career. I wanted to share just a few of the lessons I learned.

It’s okay to not know what you’re doing

Starting any new position is nerve-wracking. You’re learning new things, meeting new people, and, if you’re like me, you’re worrying that someone will think they made a mistake in hiring you. Something that has eased my worries is knowing that just as you took a risk accepting the internship, the organization took a risk in hiring you. Not to say they’re expecting you to fail, but they aren’t expecting perfection. They know what experience you have, and they know you’re a college student, not a full-time professional. Instead of pretending you know something you don’t or that you understand something more than you do, be honest.

At the end of the day, I’m an intern. People might not expect me to know much, but they do expect me to learn. What I lack in expertise I can make up for in attitude and work ethic. People don’t really care about why I don’t know something as much as they care about what I’m going to do about it. In all interactions, personal or professional, I’ve found people are much more interested in a remedy than an excuse. If I tell someone I don’t know how to do something, I like to follow that up with a plan of action on how I’m going to learn.

Get to know the people you’re working with

It takes time to adjust to office culture, but one thing you can start doing right away is getting to know the people you’ll be talking to every day. One of the most rewarding parts about my time at GuideStar is the people I’ve met. Everyone was helpful and supportive throughout my entire internship, and I felt like everyone wanted the best for me. This wasn’t an internship where I got coffee or made copies; I truly felt like the work I did had meaning and helped support GuideStar’s mission.

Another great thing about my work at GuideStar is that not everything I did fell under the Marketing and Communications umbrella. This is common at a lot of nonprofits. Your responsibilities don’t have just one function, and you build a variety of skills working for different departments. I learned so much about how teamwork and collaboration keep a nonprofit running smoothly.

Be confident in what you can bring to the organization

I think one of the most important lessons I took away from my time at GuideStar is to bring all your skills to the table, even if you think they might not be super relevant to the position. I love to write, but I never even thought about bringing that skill to GuideStar until January, when my supervisor asked me if I’d be interested in writing for our blog. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to write for GuideStar and the lessons and experience I gained along the way.

Most internship manuals tell you that you need to be a “self-starter” in order to gain the most from your internship, and, after this experience, I fully stand by that. Whoever hired you wants to see you learn and succeed. Setting goals and clarifying what skills you want to take away from the experience will help give your supervisors an idea of what tasks to assign you. That way, when interesting projects arise, they’ll keep you in mind. That being said, always stay willing to take on new tasks, because you might be surprised by what tasks you enjoy or what tasks you never thought you’d be good at.

It’s all what you make of it

Even if you don’t like a project, you should approach it with the same energy and enthusiasm with which you approach the projects you love. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve taken away from internships is learning what work I don’t like, because it gives me a better idea of what to look for in the future. For example, I did a lot of cold calling at past internships, and cold calling is one of my least favorite things on the planet. How did I survive? I like to think of a quote from a Robert Frost poem: “The best way out is always through.” While this poem is definitely not about the trials and tribulations of a college intern, the message still applies. There’s nothing you can do to cheat your way around the work you’re given, and the best way to get rid of an annoying task looming over your head is to just do it.

Final thoughts

If an organization chose you for an internship, they understand that you’re there to learn. If you can’t bring expertise to a position, you can always bring a strong work ethic. Finish your work on time. Ask questions. Most importantly, have a good attitude. The key to constant improvement is being willing to learn and being open to corrections. In internships, you get out what you put in, and I’m so grateful for the lessons I can take away from my time at GuideStar.

Abbie Wade is a rising senior at The George Washington University, studying Journalism & Mass Communication and Political Science. Yesterday (August 3, 2017) was her last day as a communications coordinator at GuideStar. We'll miss her and wish her well.

Topics: Working for a Nonprofit Nonprofit Internships