Written by: Richard Cass
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Researchers estimate that up to 1 million Americans work as unpaid interns each year. Without wages to shoulder the cost of living, an unpaid internship deepens the existing social divide. The road to making unpaid internships a thing of the past is not a smooth one. In some cases, particularly nonprofit organizations, simply do not have the financial means to pay their interns.

Over the past couple of years, the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance helped to make these unpaid internships more accessible by offering the Career Development Award. This Award program was designed to eliminate the barrier of an unpaid internship at a nonprofit organization (in-person or virtual) and increase the diversity of the nonprofit workforce by providing $2,000 internship stipends for students completing their Certified Nonprofit Professional (CNP) credential.

One recipient, RJ Cass, completed their internship with Encircle Together, as a Data Process Manager. Here are RJ’s three main takeaways from this internship:

1. There is a place for all skill sets in nonprofits: it is not all just fundraising and events. There are a lot of different roles in a nonprofit, and many of these roles require specialized skill sets. It can be easy to focus on the “upfront” positions, the ones that keep the lights on, such as grant writers, program directors, etc. However, it is important to recognize that when it comes to specialized tasks, it is good to have someone with a specialized skill set.

2. Maintaining and utilizing good data processes in decision-making can change the tides of a nonprofit. This allows you to ensure that you are collecting feedback/input from your programs, and using that to improve them as needed. Data is vital in making the best decisions for the nonprofit, in terms of where to dedicate resources to best push the mission forward, as well as knowing how to adapt the organization and its efforts to a changing world. The needs of the world are always evolving and fluctuating, and unless a nonprofit keeps track of these needs through relevant, accurate, and current data, they will not be able to maintain the same level of impact.

3. Trust the volunteers (as appropriate). Having a tightly run volunteer program can be good for ensuring the work gets done as needed, but giving some leeway allows for innovation of process and engagement from the volunteers. In my internship, I had the chance to take ownership of the data collection process, and it allowed me to feel a greater connection to the organization’s mission. It also gave me the opportunity to push myself and learn new things on the job. I was able to use my expertise to explore options for the organization, options that would not have been available if they had not given me the freedom to operate under my own volition.

“The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions of the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance.”