Internships: nonprofit employers beware!

Q: How many legs does a dog have, if you call a tail a leg?
A: Four. Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it one.
--A. Lincoln

Likewise, a Federal judge recently ruled that calling a young employee an intern doesn't make her one. (H/T our colleagues at the Nonprofit Quarterly.) Under the Fair Labor Standards Act, an internship exists primarily for the benefit of the intern--if the intern's work benefits the employer at all, a red flag goes up.

You may be surprised to hear this, as many nonprofits rely so extensively on interns to accomplish their goals. But as the economy improves, young people (and even full-grown adults, who have been compelled by the Great Recession to take unpaid "internships") are less tolerant of being exploited in the name of gaining "experience," particularly if that experience turns out to be one of bringing coffee and making copies.

So what's a nonprofit to do? A written agreement that a particularly person is a volunteer will protect the nonprofit against claims for compensation, but it will also prevent an educational institution's granting credit for the work the unpaid laborer does. If people are willing to work for no pay and no credit, there's no problem--but the Nonprofiteer wonders how many folks are that self-sacrificing, even among those working in our angelic sector.

And if you think you can ignore this and no one will catch you, remember: it only takes one whistle-blower to bring unwanted attention from the authorities. We may not be able to do much about the exploitation of full-time staff, who are expected to work 80 hours a week for pathetic salaries, or of part-time staff, who are expected to accomplish in 20 hours what actually takes 40 for a pittance honorarium and no benefits; but we can prevent the exploitation of the entirely unpaid, and we should.

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    The Nonprofiteer is Kelly Kleiman, principal of NFP Consulting, which provides Board development, strategic planning and fund-raising services to charities and philanthropies. Through her consulting practice and in her guise as The Nonprofiteer, Kelly has spent the past 25-plus years helping small and mid-sized nonprofits organize themselves better and raise more money. These days she focuses especially on helping them use high-skill volunteers. Kelly is also a lawyer and freelance journalist whose reportage and essays have appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor and other dailies; in magazines including In These Times and Chicago Philanthropy; in the alternative press; on websites including the Huffington Post; and on the radio, including the BBC and WBEZ Chicago Public Radio. She and her fellow "Dueling Critic" Jonathan Abarbanel present a weekly podcast of their reviews of Chicago theater at Earlier in her career she was dean of admissions of IIT Chicago-Kent College of Law and Executive Director of the Chicago Children’s Choir, and practiced real estate and zoning law with the firm of Rudnick &amp; Wolfe. Kelly holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Chicago. She was a founding Board member of the Association of Consultants to Nonprofits and also served for 5 years on the Board of the Association for Women Journalists–Chicago. She can be reached ("Dear Nonprofiteer . . .") at

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