One Stone, Many Birds: Why This Big Grant for Nonprofit Internships Matters

Covering the cost of paid internships for college students in the nonprofit sector may not sound like a particularly innovative idea, but take a closer look and consider how many problems get addressed at once. 

First, it's well known that affluent students can afford to take unpaid internships, thereby gaining an edge in their careers, while low- and moderate-income students have to spend their summer breaks working for pay. Footing the bill to help less affluent students get career-building internships is one way funders can help level the playing field. 

Second, there is a growing appreciation of how crucial it is for young people to connect with the professional world in order to increase their chances of getting on the right career track after college. Internships are a pillar of "career readiness" efforts, and as such efforts attract more attention from funders, so too should the idea of subsidizing internships. 

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Third, the nonprofit and public sectors face major challenges when it comes to recruiting talented young people, who often opt to work in more lucrative industries instead. This is especially true with regard to young people of color, who often face strong family pressures to convert their college education into well-paying jobs.

Having the resources to offer more and better paid internships is one way nonprofits can connect early with young people and steer them to the social sector. 

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Fourth, nonprofits are always struggling to boost their capacities, and are desperate for any kind of general operating support. Free intern labor that can be deployed as a nonprofit sees fit is a form of such support and is very helpful. 

A number of funders, such as the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, already grasp all these points, and so the Yawkey Foundations' recent push for a new internship program aimed at getting college students into nonprofit work is hardly groundbreaking. But its size is significant, and another sign that internships are becoming a bigger focus among funders.

Tapping a $10 million pledge from Yawkey, Boston University is launching the internship program for between 80 and 100 sophomores and juniors in 2016. The college students will be dubbed “YawkeyInterns” and sent to work for local, budget-conscious nonprofits that need a little extra help. The internship program will be housed in the new Kenmore Square student center and named the YawkeyCenter.

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Many nonprofits “don’t have the financial resources to bring on an extra person or an intern, especially students of the caliber of BU,” explained Maureen Bleday, Yawkey’s Executive Vice President of Programs and Operations. “For a lot of disadvantaged students, they don’t have the opportunity to do an internship for free. This will give them the opportunity to work for a nonprofit that they have a real passion for.”

Finding paid internships in the nonprofit sector can be pretty tough for college students, so BU students have a unique opportunity to see if the work suits them without sacrificing a paycheck. Yawkey’s investment is a bold step toward luring millennials into the social sector and training the next generation of nonprofit leaders.

“To our knowledge, very few colleges in the country offer such a comprehensive, paid nonprofit internship program, so the idea rang a bell with us,” said James Healey, president of the Yawkey Foundations.

“Students who have to pay tuition, have to pay their expenses, they can’t afford to take an unpaid internship because they have to pay the bills,” Healey explained. “So this was the right idea at the right time to mesh the students who couldn’t afford to not get paid for work with the non-profits, which need help.”

The internships will be offered during the summer and also mid-year, and university officials hope to expand the number of available internships over time. Boston University will reach out to local nonprofits in the fall of 2015 to advertise the internship program and encourage them to post internship opportunities around the university. The internships are expected to be competitive, and interested students will have to take courses and workshops before even pitching a nonprofit partnership idea to a faculty panel.

“This is the generation that wants to save the world, and we’re going to help them by making these nonprofit internships available,” said Laurie Pohl, BU vice president for enrollment and student affairs.