Charity case: Interns in the Voluntary Sector
Here are our Frequently Asked Questions on voluntary sector internships.
Unpaid internships continue to impede social mobility, leaving thousands of school leavers and graduates in a catch 22 situation, unable to get a job because they haven’t got experience, and unable to get experience because they can’t afford to work for free. Internships should be paid and recruitment should be based on aptitude and potential rather than connections.
Despite some positive steps, some are still routinely advertising for unpaid internships on a widespread scale.
It is important to make very clear what ‘internships’ are in the context of the law. The term ‘intern’ has no legal definition and would usually be paid ‘workers’, but for charities there is an exemption in National Minimum Wage law for ‘voluntary workers’ which allows them to have people working unpaid for them. So legally, charities do not have an obligation to pay their interns if they classify them as ‘voluntary workers’.
Sadly, we feel that too many charities, particularly those in the best position to pay, are using this as a loophole to get around paying people for genuine work that is essential to the functions of the charity.
Charity has never been about just legal compliance, but a fundamental belief in change, social mobility and social justice. In using a legal loophole to not pay full-time entry-level staff, we are excluding a huge number of people from gaining experience and opportunity in one of the most innovative, exciting and meaningful sectors in the UK.
By not paying interns, the voluntary sector is having a damaging effect on the access to, and diversity of, the sector. Those that cannot afford to work for free simply do not work in the voluntary sector, and it misses out on some of the best and brightest talent that would love to help grow a charity. The innovation and creativity that these people have end up in the private or public sector instead, where the culture has shifted to being more likely to pay interns.
Internships usually are a fantastic experience for young people. In fact, 87% think they provide valuable insight, 80% feel they get relevant skills and knowledge whilst 67% thought they gave helpful work experience. (Unite, 2013) 
However, it is because internships are so valuable that they should be paid. By not paying interns, charities are structurally deciding that only those that can afford to work for free are able to access this chance to break into the voluntary sector. This is harmful to social mobility.
It also takes advantage of the vulnerable position that graduates now find themselves in. The Guardian found that 66% felt obliged to work unpaid, whilst 67% felt exploited or undervalued. This is not a position that most charities, particularly those with aims around social justice and fairness, should be aligning themselves to.
84% of people over 35 said that a young person in their family could not afford to do an unpaid internship in London. (Survation, 2013)
Two out of five (43%) people aged between 18 and 24 believe unpaid internships act or have acted as a major barrier to getting a job (YouGov, 2012). Two out five (40%) people who thought about applying for an internship have reconsidered because they couldn’t work for free, while two out of five (39%) of people offered an internship have to turn it down for financial reasons.
And in a 2014 report by McKinsey & Company they said, “Not everyone can afford to take unpaid work in order to build skills or experience. Indeed, there is a risk that, by providing unpaid internships, companies exacerbate socio-economic differences—by ensuring that the best work experience opportunities go to young people from wealthier backgrounds.”
No, quite often they are not volunteers. As charities and not-for-profits, there should be a very good grasp on what ‘volunteering’ looks like, both legally and morally. If someone is doing regular hours in a London-based office, quite clearly this is not in the spirit of genuine volunteering.
 McKinsey, Education to Employment: Getting Europe’s Youth into Work, 2014: http://mckinseyonsociety.com/downloads/reports/Education/A4E2e_DOWNLOAD_BOOK_FINAL.pdf