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Unpaid Internships, Glampers, and the Grade School Gum Dictum

There is a brilliant short story by Kurt Vonnegut called “Harrison Bergeron.”  In a future America, all citizens are declared equal. To ensure this equality, those who are gifted are purposefully handicapped. The beautiful must wear masks; the swift must carry weights. It is very much worth the five minutes it would take you to read it (here).

"She must have been extraordinarily beautiful, because the mask she wore was hideous.''

The villain of the piece is Diana Moon Glampers, the US Handicapper General. And, while she remains a work of fiction, there are many mini Glampers among us. I met some on twitter this week.

The issue that provoked the Glampers was “the dilemma” of unpaid internships.

At PDT we have an intern program. We accept 3-6 interns a year, mostly for posts in New York and Ottawa.  They work both part time and full time, depending on the time of year and their class load. They do pretty much anything, except for “busy work” or custodial duties. Examples of recent tasks include (to quote from our website):

  • Write a detailed report on the demographics of Haitian businesses.
  • Compile research on economic development in Liberia and suggest new ways of driving growth.
  • Fly to Kabul to assist our Afghan team as they host a large conference.
  • Find a sat phone and a bag of military rations, in Midtown Manhattan, in 90 minutes, on a Friday night.
  • Track down a quote from an obscure 16th century Persian poet celebrating Kandahari pomegranates.

The interns obtain unique career experience in development, while substantially helping our efforts to build markets and create jobs in some of the world’s poorest nations. In more than one case, they have gone on to long-term jobs with PDT. An example is our own infamous Kavya-The-Intern, Kavya-The-Executive-Assitant, Kavya-The-Project-Officer.

But here’s the rub. It’s widely acknowledged that unpaid internships favor the wealthy students over the poor. Poor college students must work at paid jobs in order to cover their costs, and therefore they can’t afford to take on internships. Thus, the Glampers proclaim that unpaid internships are unethical and should be abolished.  If all cannot participate, none should participate. Let’s call this the Grade School Gum dictum: if there isn’t enough for the entire class, spit it out.

Here’s an important point: PDT (as with most NGOs) is not sitting on hidden sacks of cash that we could otherwise use to pay interns. Our budget is finite and is emptied paying our salaried staff. But we do have some open desk space. So we fill them with unpaid interns. Therefore, the options are twofold:

  1. Host unpaid internships, which tend to be filled by the wealthy or middle class. Or,
  2. Cancel all internships and leave those desks empty.

Consider the consequences of both these actions on the various people involved.

Exhibit A

In every case, Option 2 either produces no effect, or a negative effect for each stakeholder. The poor students are in the exact same position in either case, albeit a disadvantaged one. The only thing that could possibly be said in defence of the second option is that “everyone is equal (in their level of disadvantage).” From the perspective of the Glampers, this is the most important goal. But, from my perspective, the most important goal is to “get shit done” and get on with the business of trying to reduce poverty.

I will concede that I have not studied ethics, nor have I read St. Augustine. At Sunday Mass, I tend to marvel at the stained-glass windows instead of paying attention to the sermons. Therefore, I may be getting this all wrong. So I will defer to my readers, but from my perspective, I say to the Glampers that there is no possible way to see unpaid internships as an ethically complicated dilemma.

In other words: if there isn’t enough gum for the entire class, too bad for them.

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  1. Penelope says:

    Hi Scott,

    Great points, and I pretty much agree with your perspective on this. I just wanted to throw in my 2 cents, being now on the hiring-of-interns-and-volunteers side of things.

    My org is trying to find sponsors to cover the costs of internships – including a stipend for the intern + cover the costs of having another person in the office. We’re estimating that a 3 month internship would cost roughly $6,000. We’ve only had marginal success so far (I think mostly because many corporations view the org as dangerously radical…) but I’m pushing hard for this to work, because I really think it is unfair that only a minority of well-off young people can afford to get great work experiences.

    We still of course rely on free labor from interns, students and volunteers – a lot of it, I might add – and they’re happy to get the experience. But it would be nice to be able to give these opportunities to people who can’t afford to work for free.

    PS. Your internships sound amazing.

  2. c-sez says:

    A typical internship: about 20 hours/week, unpaid.

    A typical aid job: an unintentionally humorous employment contract saying you are paid to work 35-40 hours/week. And when those hours are done, you just put your head down and keep working… another 20 hours/week, unpaid.

    We are all interns forever. :)

  3. Alanna says:

    An organization that seeks to end poverty should at least acknowledge the irony of essentially using wealth as a criteria for who gets a valuable career-building experience.

  4. Scott Gilmore says:

    Alanna: Yes, I recognize the irony and the necessary trade offs. But, when I sit down at my desk every morning, my primary goal is to create jobs in Afghanistan and Liberia. Not in Brooklyn or Toronto.

  5. I think you raise a lot of valid points here, and I understand why you see offering unpaid internships as the best option. Is there no middle ground however of maybe reducing the number of internships you offer to say one or two, but making sure they are paid a basic wage, or at least covering housing costs? I’m thinking of the London internship market in particular, but I imagine it is the same for New York and Ottowa – I think many more people would be willing and able to do internships not if they were paid a full wage, but if they could find a way to just paid rent in an expensive city for a few months.

    In addition, I won’t assume to judge the finacial situation of PDT, and working for a very small resource constrained NGO I understand these constraints, however at the same time I do know of examples of other small organisations which are setting an example and somehow find enough money to ensure that their interns are not at least loosing money – Engineers Without Borders UK for example.

    Finally, I’d be interested to hear whether you think the same logic applies to larger NGOs, such as Oxfam (first one that popped into my head that I know does not offer paid internships), where I don’t believe that if they were serious about this issue could not find enough money to cover select internship posts. Should there be double standards here for small and large organisations, and of course, where do you draw the line?

  6. Akhila says:

    Scott, poverty and inequality exists in the U.S. too, in the crime and drug-ridden streets of Baltimore or the Bronx. Poverty in Afghanistan and Liberia may mean lack of access to even basic health care and job opportunities, but poverty in the U.S. is equally wrong in my belief.

    Social justice across the world is linked, not disparate. If you are contributing to injustice in the U.S. inner cities while trying to solve problems in Afghanistan or India, is that really just? Not in my opinion. An NGO should not be perpetuating inequality in one sense while trying to solve it in another way.

    I think you are speaking from a place of enormous privilege. As an NGO you should be more sensitive to poverty and inequality in the U.S. The fact that you are so insensitive to the challenges faced by poor youth in the U.S. shows me something about your ideas regarding social justice, and it isn’t a good thing.

    Another thing to consider: perhaps students who come from low income backgrounds in the U.S. are more inclined to relate to the poor. Movements to end poverty, in my mind, must ultimately come from the poor. Not from us, rich/white/privileged folks (I consider myself privileged). You are choosing students who are already rich, but you are losing the opportunity to get students from more diverse backgrounds – who may be able to contribute even more to this field and to ending poverty in the long run.

    Overall I think your post was very insensitive. You are essentially saying the life of a poor person in Afghanistan is more valuable than the opportunities provided to poor youth in America. I just think that as an NGO, you have to be more sensitive than this.

  7. Akhila says:

    Another thing: rather than just ignoring this problem, why don’t you acknowledge the issue and try to come up with solutions?

    – Encourage students to work with you part time (over the summer) and get a part-time paid job in the other 2-3 days of the week.
    – Provide free housing, food expenses, travel expenses through your organization.
    – Organize for summer interns to stay with your staff over the summer or something like that, to lower their housing costs
    – Try to develop partnerships with businesses to fund all these basic expenses
    – Try to obtain donors who will help you create a paid summer internship program

  8. c-sez says:

    An alternative pathway for people who can’t work unpaid internships.

    1. Go to university and study something aid organisations need. Accounting. Finance. IT. Comms. Media. Law. You name it.
    2. Work elsewhere in the private or public sectors for 2 years. Or maybe 20 years. Up to you.
    3. Come into aidworld with some in-demand professional skills, at a higher level than an unpaid internship.

    and if you really must do a highly aid specific job

    4. Continue to study & professionally develop while you’re working in aidworld, to move sideways into the sanitation shovelling governance role you’ve always dreamed of.

  9. Scott Gilmore says:

    Helen: When you suggest reducing the number of interns and then paying some a living wage, we do that, we just call them staff. I think we’ve already found that middle ground. If we reduced the number of interns even more, it would not create any extra cash for us to hire more people.

    As for larger NGOs, I do think it applies. The same logic works across the charitable/non-profit sector.

  10. Scott Gilmore says:

    C-Sez – Bingo! Agree with you 100%.

  11. Sfoxworthy says:

    I have to agree with Akhila when she raises the point of poverty being linked and not disparate. Although your mission is directed to poverty in other countries and you must respect that, your blog seems incredibly heartless to poor youth living in your own country of residence. As a Development Director I completely understand that resources are limited and as much money should go to programs as possible. I suppose I just don’t agree with how your opinion seems completely unempathetic to poverty outside your door.

  12. Scott Gilmore says:

    Sfoxworthy: I am empathetic, but I have a defined mission that focuses on poverty overseas in post-conflict econmies. And that is the benchmark by which I measure our success. Furthermore, paying a couple interns in Brooklyn, who are likely attending Princeton or NYU, will have no impact on poverty in the US. None at all.

  13. Edward Rees says:

    I was the son of affluent parents who could afford my unpaid internships. I still want to quit.

  14. Scott, I don’t think its necessarily a question of trying to have an ‘impact’ on poverty in the US, but one of principles – fundamentally certain people, myself included, believe that you can not justify not attempting to find a solution whereby you do not simply select interns from a pool of people who can afford to live and work without payment. You may well select the Princeton students (who may still be from a low income background just surviving on grants and loans) – the point is that you are attempting to level the playing field, attempting to select people on their merits, and not their finances. I realise that this is difficult for small organisations, but i see it as a matter of principle that organisations take this issue seriously and attempt to find solutions

  15. Carol says:

    Hi Scott!

    I agree with some of your points, but not really the rationale. I don’t think the solution is to ax unpaid internships, but I don’t think the arbitrariness of having money is the same as the natural gifts that Glampers’ was trying to equalize. How many talented, hard working people are you missing out on because they can’t afford to work for free? I think universities have to figure out ways in which to help students be able to intern. I was able, for example, at Yale, to claim my UN internship as an “independent study” with the professor that recommended me for it. Internships at places like PDT, even unpaid, can be great experience, as you say. But a lot of organizations, like UN agencies, require that you are enrolled in university full time *and* can work for free for 40 hours a week. That’s insanity, and a lot of students that do that sort of thing are students who have the money and get permission from their university to take a whole semester off to intern. That seems kind of unfair to students like me, who can’t take a semester off or work a full week.

    At the end of the day, I agree with you and don’t think the solution is to ban unpaid internships altogether.

  16. Scott Gilmore says:

    Helen: You raise an important point about selecting on merit. We do try to ensure that our selection process is strictly merit based, and the quality of the university education they are getting (and therefore by extension the quality of the university) is an important factor. What we don’t consider is that poor students are less likely to get into Princeton, for example. How would you suggest, given an NGO’s limited resources, that they cast a wider net to finder the smarter, poorer student at the state college?

  17. Scott, I’d be interested to know how you see potential trade-offs between equal opportunities and organisational effectiveness in other areas. For example, following a similar logic you could argue that NGOs shouldn’t give maternity leave benefits because this would have a cost to the NGO (and by extension, a reduced benefit to its clients and donors), which would not be incurred if you only employed staff who weren’t going to have children. But I would say that most people now agree (although obviously with varying laws and practices) that the equal opportunity argument is greater than the cost-effectiveness argument regarding parental leave… yet regarding unpaid interns the second argument usually wins.

  18. Scott Gilmore says:

    Stephen: At PDT, we provide a relatively generous maternity leave policy (although in the US, it’s not hard to be generous given the low level of standard benefits usually provided by employers). And the reason we do, is not because we feel strongly about maternal rights (although we do), but because as an employer I do a cost/benefit analysis and believe that more money spent on maternity leave allows us to attract better employees which allows us to achieve more in our projects.

  19. Most students who have to take up loans to go to university are immediately placed below the poverty line in Canada. A maximum loan when I went to uni was 11,900, and the poverty mark was hovering around 19,000. Students are impoverished. Not all, sure, but some — maybe most.

    So why not fight poverty at home while fighting it abroad? It’s simple enough to do: pay people for work, regardless of the work. If someone goes to an office and spends a few hours of their day there, doing things that help that company succeed — financially or otherwise — is that person not entitled to pay for their efforts? At any job.

    The strange rubric you’ve created states that having unpaid interns gives your donors more value for their donated dollars, and while I don’t dispute the claim that having another employee gets more work done, I want to highlight the disconnect in the thought process here. Paid intern positions — not just at PDT, but anywhere — offer meaningful work to students, some of whom are certainly impoverished. At an institution that looks ” ‘get shit done’ and get on with the business of trying to reduce poverty,” this should be addressed. Would your donors feel contented knowing that the organization they support and fund prefers, by way of ingrained and institutionalized thought, middle-class and rich applicants. That its structure automatically excludes impoverished applicants? Something isn’t adding up there.

  20. Tony Adams says:

    Poor people always get screwed, no matter what system is in place. It is quixotic to try and design system where poor people don’t get short end of stick because you are going against Mother Nature.

    I wonder how many resumes Gilmomre receives from poor people in Baltimore looking to get into foreign aid industry?

    Internships are way to break class or nepotism barriers. I often find Glampers are people who can’t compete in normal job market and want to use their advantages – money or family – and cut the ladder out from those who don’t have familial connections but can do unpaid internships while attending university.

    I am here via Wells link and have immensely enjoyed Gilmore’s post and comments. I want bother commentators too much but I really enjoyed people giving Gilmore hard time for not solving poverty in Baltimore at same time as his org tries to fix Afghan or Haiti.

    PJ O’Rourke ~ In comparative terms, there’s no poverty in America by a long shot. Heritage Foundation political scientist Robert Rector has worked up figures showing that when the official U.S. measure of poverty was developed in 1963, a poor American family had an income twenty-nine times greater than the average per capita income in the rest of the world. An individual American could make more money than 93 percent of the other people on the planet and still be considered poor.

  21. For me its a question of ‘are you doing all that is reasonably possible to ensure that not being able to afford to live unpaid in x city is not a influencing factor in your intern recruitment process’. In terms of outreach the important thing is that the information concerning an internship is open and transparent. As for any type of job I wouldn’t necessarily expect that an organisation do extra outreach to attract poor but bright students, but that any individual who sees the advert does not say to themself ‘That would be great, I have the right skills, but how am I meant to live in New York unpaid?’

  22. James says:

    Hi Scott,

    Ah, the ol’ unpaid internship debate. Makes me question the idea of going back to school at all for a PhD or technical degree.

    First, not all the blame should be placed at the feet of organizations and companies. University Careers Services should also be addressing the problem. At the universities of Ottawa and Waterloo, the Cooperative Education programme was quite successful at getting experience and income for students (even if the U of O programme wasn’t well managed… I wish I knew you guys back in my Ottawa days though as opposed to Health Canada in the doom that is Tunney’s Pasture, even if you didn’t pay and they did). Likewise there are other methods of skills development and education such as the German model ( Finally, universities could be honest with all these students now applying to sprouting degrees in Development and let them know they’d benefit by learning a technical skill on the side to make themselves more valuable (such as c-sez’s comment). Not many employers care that you can rant about core-periphery theory.

    However, not all organizations or companies are hurting for cash to compensate their interns. It’s a case by case scenario (OMG! Just like development!). So you seem to be shouldering all the burdens of the problems faced in the unpaid internship debate, however given budget constraints it could be argued that PDT is doing the best it can. If Goldman Sachs doesn’t pay its interns, then that is another matter. So I don’t think you need to get too defensive.

    There’s another issue in your argument to point out. You forgot to add for Option 1 that the poor student has just become less competitive (unless they take c-sez’s advice) once the middle-to-upper class student did take the unpaid internship. That’s the real annoyance. If you can’t afford an unpaid internship, yes it’s frustrating that you didn’t get the experience, but then there’s the prolonged frustration of competing with peers who could afford it and are not having an easier time in a difficult job market. So going back to the PDT vs. Goldman example I suppose it doesn’t matter if Goldman can pay, because maybe now your desired employers could see you as evil if you took that position (apologies for the double-backing, but I’m debating my own arguments as I go here).

    All in all, no, it’s not all PDT’s fault or even necessarily employers writ large. Not so employers who have the means to pay interns should be exploiting poor students as one of your cited articles notes, but at the same time universities and labour and education ministries could be doing more creative thinking on mitigating the issue as opposed to bar all opportunities.

  23. Scott Gilmore says:

    Twitterer @markscrivens posted:

    “Scott, with the greatest respect, you misread Vonnegut:

    I’d read about that case before posting the blog, and hesitated to include the Bergeron reference since the analogy is imperfect. But I wanted to illustrate the mindset that argues “either everyone is equal and has gum, or no one has gum”, and felt Vonnegut had done the best job of this.

  24. Scott: thanks for the reply. Did you explicitly do a cost-effectiveness calculation regarding interns too? I’m interested if there is a clear threshold/tipping point (in terms of type of work, number of hours per week and length of contract) at which point it becomes more cost-effective to pay someone. For example, I guess it is by pushing your cost-effectiveness argument you could end up with ‘internships’ like one advertised recently in the UK by (ironically) the Centre for Social Justice, which wanted 11 months full-time unpaid work. It seems that PDT’s internships are typically shorter and/or part-time, but do you have a clear calculation on when it becomes worth paying someone?

  25. Shauna says:

    Hi Scott

    These are the Internships that I would wish for my daughter. Practical and educational.
    It isn’t the Internships that are in question with your group. It is still about the haves and the have nots.

    I am just wondering if there would be a group of individuals or corporations that would give bursaries to the Interns to afford to live in the city and do this work at the same time. Or maybe there is a group out there that would lease an appartment for the students so they at least wouln’t have to worry about that piece.
    It allows all students to be able to apply…not just those with money.


  26. Penelope says:

    By the way… In France, completely unpaid internships don’t exist. The goverment mandates a minimum stipend (when I was interning in early 2000s, it was about $400/month). It’s not much, but it’s something.

    Unpaid internships aren’t going anywhere. I’m curious to see what’s going to happen 20 years from now. People in their 20s in the US today are less rich than their parents; so what will that mean for the pool of people who will be able to afford unpaid work?

    Some people make that point in other comments, but NGOs – even the most cash-strapped ones – have the responsibility to find solutions and to get creative to find *some* funding to pay people who work hard. It’s just the right thing to do.

  27. Kimberly says:

    Two other comments I don’t think have been covered in the comments yet:

    1) I think it’s important to remember that (if you’re doing it right) unpaid interns aren’t free. They cost more than a desk – at minimum, there’s the time/effort that goes in to recruiting and managing interns. We have a responsibility to be aware of these invisible costs and consider the alternatives: Could the time spent managing two p/t unpaid interns be spend finding funding to cover 1 FT great (paid) one?

    I’ve seen organizations spend a surprising amount managing ‘free’ labour. At a certain point, you’ve got you ask if that time could be better spent to bring in contributions from people who can’t work for free.

    and related:

    2) When you only hire middle class/rich kids (assuming this is who you get from unpaid internships) you’re making a diversity tradeoff, which can impact that quality of your organization’s work in the long and short term. In the short term: paid opportunities presumably deepen the talent pool, so suddenly that report on Haitian business demographics/Liberian economic development/Person poetry can be written by somebody who’s recently migrated from that country, speaks that language or has direct experience of that issue. Not to say that these people might not be in your unpaid talent pool – but pay a modest amount and you’re more likely to get more, better, different people.

    In the short run, this affects projects and maybe organizational culture. In the long run, if more of your Project Officers are like Kavya, your staff base looks pretty middle class/rich. I don’t know if that has an effect on your program (no research to link to springs to mind) – but it’s something I’d wonder about.

  28. Emmanuelle says:

    Hi Scott,

    The ethical dilemma doesn’t lie in the outcomes that internships provide, it lies in the initial situation. In the final analysis, it is evident that many organizations could not function without volunteers or interns. While the organizations in question cannot alter individual situations, perhaps they can adjust the nature of the game so that more individuals can participate. @Carol suggests a workable solution for many internship candidates; a model that more universities should adopt – perhaps at the suggestion of their partners. Moreover, her suggestion targets the situational problem rather than the outcome. Another approach might be to have more part-time internships or to allow interns to work from home; these are certainly unconventional approaches but there is little to suggest in the tasks listed above that most work at PDT can’t be done from home. Perhaps not ideal, but an equalizer nonetheless.

  29. Scott Gilmore says:

    Kimberly: This comment of yours is very interesting

    “1) I think it’s important to remember that (if you’re doing it right) unpaid interns aren’t free. They cost more than a desk – at minimum, there’s the time/effort that goes in to recruiting and managing interns. We have a responsibility to be aware of these invisible costs and consider the alternatives: Could the time spent managing two p/t unpaid interns be spend finding funding to cover 1 FT great (paid) one?”

    I don’t know the answer to that. But I’ll be thinking about it all day.

  30. Bix says:

    Doesn’t it bother you that all your interns come from the same background? IMO, when working in a knowledge-based environment, getting hold of a person that can bring something unusual to the table is the real challenge. Don’t you ever stop to wonder that if you got that one special person that overcame the poverty of his own upbringing, then he or she could bring something unique to the table in terms not only of motivation, but also skills and (maybe most importantly) credibility. Working to recruit outside the upper/middle class should not be done as a favor to the recruited but also because it could benefit your organisation (as well as the poor in Afghanistan or Liberia). Just a thought…

  31. Scott Gilmore says:

    Bix: I wouldn’t say it “bothers” me. The things that bother me are that the number of jobs we’ve created in Haiti this year are below what I think we could be doing and I don’t know why. That keeps me up at night. Our interns being mostly middle class kids is something I’d prefer to change, but it’s much lower on my list of priorities. It’s not ideal, but I can live with it. Now, our HR director likely feels differently. For him, this is something that bothers him, which is why we advertise our internships so aggressively on Twitter and Facebook, to cast the widest net.

  32. jd says:

    There are valid points on both sides of the argument, though I fully agree with unpaid internships. NGO’s are in touch with reality that cash isn’t bountiful and having to pay an intern simply means there would be no intern. When students accept a position, we are fully aware if it’s unpaid – there are no surprises on “pay-day”. We do it because intern positions allow us to gain unique and invaluable experience in development that a pay cheque can’t buy and our university can’t offer.

    I realize it may not be financially feasible for some students to accept an unpaid position, though I don’t feel that argument justifies the idea of abolishing internships (and the associated experience, learning, personal growth, etc.) For students whose only option is paid employment to cover expenses: unfortunately it’s tough luck, but be thankful such option exists in your country.

    I agree with James’ point that government and educational institutions could – and should – help level the playing field to ensure unpaid internship opportunities (esp. in development) are possible for more students.

    Yet another great post, Scott.

  33. Aurora says:

    I’m curious to see what commenters here think appropriate pay for an intern would be? Usually the lowest level employee at an NGO (an assistant, sometimes an associate) is making a meager salary and if an intern is less than that how could it be considered a ‘living wage’? Basically, unless you’re a student, as an intern you’ll need a second job. Oh tormented life! Two jobs!
    Being poor is incredibly unfair, but I think that saying it totally freezes people out of these positions is unfair to the hard working lower income kids. I would have loved to make more money during my internship, but I didn’t, so I had another job and I was frugal and I learned things. It’s much better to have the opportunity to sacrifice for a position with a great organization that simply cannot afford to pay you than to have to compete even more for the hand full of paid internships that require sacrificing a little bit less.

  34. jd says:

    @bix I definitely agree with your point that someone who overcame poverty of his/her own upbringing brings something unique to the table — though I don’t think it is fair to generalize everyone who comes from an upbringing of middle/upper class as the “same”. No one can choose the financial security in which they are born into, nor does it mean they agree with the motivations and upbringing within that “class”. IMO, it isn’t really fair to question someone’s credibility, motivation, passion, and skillset simply because they were lucky enough to be born into a certain class, as labelled by society.

    Again, we are fortunate to be having a discussion over the ethics behind unpaid internships vs. students who take a paying job to support their pursuit of a degree. In far too many places around the world, the motivation, skills, knowledge, desire to learn, etc. are embodied by so many, yet minimal opportunities exist. This is the real tragedy.

  35. Paul says:

    I can tolerate unpaid internships at cash-strapped NGO’s, where there is a meaningful greater good being pursued in a not-for-profit way. What really makes me crazy is when for-profit (even if they sometimes fail to make a profit) companies offer unpaid internships simply because there are people who will take them. The media is notorious for this. Your strategy to maximize shareholder value, or the solution for your failed business plan, should not be to exploit labourers (even if they do so knowingly).

    I thought we had minimum wage laws for a reason.

  36. Tom says:

    Aren’t internships, in any way, inherently elitist and privileged? Very few pay enough (or at all!) to live and work in a city like New York. Let’s say that PDT scrapped money together and offered $1,000 a month to its interns. With high rent, expensive foods, and transportation it would be extremely hard to get by on that stipend. Not impossible, but very hard. This would mean that young people who do not have financial support from home will still not likely be able to participate as an intern with PDT. I can confirm this as an AmeriCorps manager who has mostly white privileged college graduates who are finishing a year of service and a new crop of them coming in. I work very hard to bring on members of the community and I will not completely give up, but a stipend of $12,100 to cover living expenses for 11 months is very hard for people with significant debt, student loans, and no financial support from their parents. It does help smooth out things a bit, but the financial barrier remains.

  37. There are ways to reduce the burden for students and increase, at a least a bit, accessibility. At Canadian Lawyers Abroad we do this in a number of ways. We work with participating law school career offices to identify bursaries that our students would qualify for, we encourage schools to allow the internship to count towards credit (may simply require student writing a paper), we facilitate fundraising by students (many are very good at raising money and this raises the profile of our organization which is great) and we apply for government funding where applicable (e.g., Canada Summer Jobs). This requires a bit of work but increases the pool of applicants. However, the reality is that generally the money raised only cover the student’s costs so they still forego a salary. Many students simply can’t afford to do this which isn’t fair. [Now if only I had energy to rebut your Down with Volunteers column by pointing to important international pro bono work by lawyers. Maybe if you buy me lunch, I’ll go to the trouble of explaining.]

  38. Scott Gilmore says:

    Catherine McKenna: I think you have the most interesting response yet. These all seem like relatively easy ways to ease the financial burden on interns. Given that we’re married, I am curious why a) you’ve never shared this with me before, and b) why I need to buy you lunch?

  39. Jesse Helmer says:

    Funding for internships at other organizations is a key aspect of the Loran Awards the Canadian Merit Scholarahip Foundation grants to 30 young Canadians each year. These are merit scholarships tenable at 24 different universities in Canada. Each Loran scholar can access up to $7,500 for public policy or personal/community development internships or projects. We also encourage and help to arrange private sector paid internships for the scholars.

  40. Bubba says:

    Who cares. Only a complete moron works for free; if the NGO industry has to function on the backs of wealthy morons, then so be it. I skipped the intern slave phase and moved directly into salaried positions. My career in the aid world has yet to suffer for it.

  41. Sam Gardner says:

    In essence, development is seldom about technical issues (just like famine) , it is more about power and who has it. NGOs used to side with the powerless. But perhaps it is time some of them just become enterprises. Private companies can do a lot of good, and can be very professional, without having to be on the moral high ground.

  42. Bix says:

    Good points from both sides, I must agree. Of course I did not mean to imply that all interns from middle/upper class backgrounds are the same (and neither are the ones from the working class) but I think that this is a bit besides the point. That’s why we strive for diversity, because we are more likely to get employees with different skillsets if we recruit them from different backgrounds… And, Scott, I totally understand that you worry more about the concrete results of your work than you do about the makeup of your workforce. But it is my opinion that the two are linked – maybe not in the short run but in an organisations performance viewed over a longer period. If there was no correlation between the people you hire and the things you acheieve we would propably not be having this discussion.

  43. Hanuman says:

    You can also toss the “interns who can afford it” at the “internship for pay” schemesprograms that come with some training, and facilitation designed to knock them down a peg or two, or some degree of internsitting and picking up the pieces after they screw it up with their privileges.

    By directing the ‘haves’ to the programs for ‘the haves’ then the ‘have nots’ can have something.

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