Will work for no pay, but a litte prestige wouldn't hurt.
January 12, 2010 10:14 PM   Subscribe

How should I go about contacting non-profits about taking me, a relatively inexperienced college sophomore, on as an unpaid summer intern? I'm contacting these organizations cold, and could use some help figuring out my initial approach- what information should I include? Is there anything I can say that will make the recipient of my email more likely to seriously consider my proposal? Do I even stand a reasonable chance of that happening to begin with?

Some background: I'm a sophomore at a small liberal arts college in Massachusetts, but I'm from the Dallas suburbs and want to go back home this summer.

Through my college, I can apply to a program in which you get sponsored (ie, paid) for doing an internship with a non-profit or government agency. You don't have to apply for an existing internship; an email from the organization saying they're happy to have you there for 8-10 weeks over the summer is enough. However, you can't just sporadically volunteer at the organization; the program defines an internship as a more formal, probably project-based/goal-oriented kind of thing.

I'm interested in public health and health care administration, and I've found a few non-profits in the Dallas area that work in those areas doing things I care about- the top two on my list provide health care for uninsured or underinsured people. The problem is, none of these organizations happen to explicitly say they want interns, so I have to contact them cold proposing that they kind of... create an internship for me. I can imagine a busy volunteer coordinator reading my email and thinking "Well we could use volunteers to answer phones/stuff envelopes, but this internship business sounds like more work for me, and why should I put in effort for this random college student?" My first goal is to figure out how to avoid this reaction (and am I wrong to think it's likely to happen? Does the unpaid factor help any?). I also don't want to be to presumptuous and propose a project for myself right off the bat with no knowledge of the organization's needs.

To be honest, I'm fine spending my summer answering phones/making coffee/delivering mail/whatever slave labor they find for me, but to get this sponsored thing from my school (which is competitive) I need to be able to to sell it as more than that. And in a perfect world it would be- I'd like to expand my skills and take some responsibility and try out this field and you know, actually get the supposed benefits of an internship.

As for what skills I do have, I've worked in medical offices before (in high school and last summer) handling medical records and doing general office-y stuff. FWIW, I'm an econ/psych major with some experience in computer science. My only other work experience has given me sweet latte-making skills which I'm pretty sure aren't relative here. I'm willing to learn new skills and really want to be useful to the non-profit, not a burden. So, mefites who have experience with non-profits, advice? Am I dreaming to think that this might work? Are unexperienced college students willing to work for no pay in higher demand than I think?
posted by MadamM to Work & Money (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
(I hate to reiterate what your career office probably already said but --) You should use your alumni network. And any other networks you have (sports, Girl Scouts, church, whatever). Ask everyone who they know in Dallas. And go from there. Once you have a connection, even a modest connection, your liberal arts college (= you have a brain) and the paid internship part will get you there with no great difficulty.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 10:21 PM on January 12, 2010

Best answer: Having been on the other side of this desk (non-profit type managing interns) I say "go for it."

- Write up a really good functional resume with your specific skills, emphasizing your experience with medical records and the particular computer things you're good at. (I'm suggesting you do a functional resume rather than a chronological one because you want to highlight your amazing skills, not your youthitude.)

- Write up a really good cover letter talking about your goals, your experience, your college's program, and the amount of funding you'd be receiving (I know that might not seem relevant, but it actually is--an intern who's worth $2,000 or whatever to their college is much more appealing than an intern who's working for nothing paid by nobody).

- Pick 15-20 organizations you would want to work for and send away.

- Do this now, because if someone's going to manage an intern this summer they will want to plan for it now.

Good luck!
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:21 PM on January 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also, the more you make it clear that you're going to do your own managing vis-a-vis the college, the more appealing you'll look. If you can indicate that in your cover letter, so much the better. One of the things that overworked non-profit employees hate is having to spend a lot of time managing their interns' internship process.

Another resource is the Internship listing at idealist.org.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:26 PM on January 12, 2010

When these emails come in to me, invariably the way it works is a student contacts me asking for an internship and then wastes a whole bunch of my time on back-and-forth emails before making it clear that they have these specific project requirements for their school that we absolutely cannot meet. (We don't have supervisors with the right educational background, or we can't allow them to have direct interaction with our clients - not my choice, company rule.)

It works best when the person makes clear right up front that although they're happy to do whatever tasks we need done, their school has certain requirements that they would need to meet, which they're attaching so I can look over them and decide whether my organization can offer a position that would meet the requirements.

We just turned down one unpaid intern because although her resume looked great and for once we actually could meet her school's requirements, she was extremely flaky about getting back to us, answering the questions in our emails to her, etc. Even though it's an unpaid situation, you really still need to be professional about the inquiry/interview process. If I come away from that process with the impression that you're going to be a giant headache to manage, I don't have a lot of incentive to put in the time managing you.
posted by Stacey at 3:01 AM on January 13, 2010

I had success, fairly recently, doing exactly what you're trying to do (though I didn't have any university program supporting me, and I was offered a modest stipend by the organization, which blew my mind, considering).

I recommend being as upfront as possible. Tell them basically what you told us. But I would make an attempt to sound less like "I'm looking for any internship...can you take me?" and more like "your organization sounds great...any chance you have some work that needs done?" Focus on what you can do for them, not the fact that you need an internship and they're sort of doing you a favor.

In some ways, I think it's easier to get an internship this way, as existing internship programs are always intensely competitive to get into, but this way, an organization might get your email and think "cool, free work-- hadn't even thought of that, but why not?"

Just be prepared for some degree of idleness-- it's a major time investment to create work for someone without specific skills, and sometimes that time just isn't there.

Good luck-- I think with persistence you'll find something.
posted by threeants at 5:20 AM on January 13, 2010

Best answer: This is quite common, so don't fret that you are creating a problem by just asking.

However, do follow the great advice given here. Write to your targets with a complete package: your internship requirements, experience, goals, and resume. Indicate that you have given some thought to what type of project you would like to pursue, but that you are open to assisting the organization in any way that suits its priorities.

You need to communicate that you yourself are goal-oriented. Someone who just asks for "an internship" with no descriptors of what it is they hope to learn, do, or gain, is hoisting a big red flag. You want to include a clear statement like "I'm interested in issues of health care access for lower-income economic sectors, and have been working on these issues by taking X and Y classes and volunteering with Z Healthcare Organization. My career goals are This and That. My experience in medical records means I'm detail-oriented, organized, and adept at basic administrative skills, but my extensive customer service work as a barista also honed my abilities in public speaking and relationship building and I believe will translate well to advocacy and presentation work."

You are essentially applying for a job, the pay arrangements notwithstanding. Even if you weren't being paid by your school, unpaid internships are still competitive, and they are still key to career advancement at the lower levels. Do everything you can to come off as serious and professional. Internships that don't pay are still giving you something very valuable: experience, references, the credibility that comes from being part of an established organization, familiarity with a field and its operating principles and jargon, contacts, and the like. You're asking for a chance to do much more serious work than volunteering, so you should indicate that you've thought about how this work fits into your professional development goals.

Also, be sure to talk in your introductory letter about what YOU will do for THEM. I have received far too many internship application letters that talk about what the prospective intern hopes to get out of the arrangement. That's nice, but that's not why I'm bringing in an intern. I'd bring in an intern if I feel they can make a meaningful and helpful contribution to the organization that would not happen without them. You need to sell them, not on the idea of having an intern (you won't be the first), but on the idea that you are going to provide real assistance to the organization in meeting its goals.

Your school must have a career services department that can help you draft a letter, and even provide examples of internship application letters. I would suggest approaching them for some basic feedback on putting your application together.
posted by Miko at 6:45 AM on January 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Allso, indicate that you are available for a phone interview.

Do the application by e-mail; it makes it easier for the person at the other end to respond rapidly. A paper application runs the risk of migrating to the bottom of the desk pile.

If you don't hear back, you can email again in a week and ask gently whether you might be able to call them to discuss the possibility. If they can't take on an intern, they'll probably let you know at that point. If they don't get back to you after that, the place is probably so swamped you'd have a really rough time working there anyway.
posted by Miko at 6:48 AM on January 13, 2010

I did this when I graduated. I started by researching the kind of organizations I wanted to intern at and then developed a list of about 20 places to contact. This was all done long-distance from Minnesota to North Carolina. I first called and asked if they had an internship program. If they had a program, I got the information on how to submit my resume. If they did not, I asked whether they would consider taking on an unpaid intern, summarized my skills and goals and asked if I could send a letter and resume. If they agreed, I made sure to get the name of the hiring director or person who would be responsible for making such a decision. Everyone I worked with was always polite and almost every place I talked to agreed to take my resume and letter.

I made sure to send the letters the same day. The letter had to sell my skills, show that I was eager to work hard and learn (unpaid), but most importantly it had to demonstrate that my presence at the company would be a benefit rather than a hassle. I included a summary of my university's requirements (they were flexible, which helped my chances a lot) and any information on how I could be reached via email. I did my best to tailor each letter to the company, and what I could do to fill their needs.

The end result was that I got a good internship with a non-profit and got my foot in the door at other places where I was able to later go and work. It worked out well. Keep it professional, be assertive and have confidence. Good luck!
posted by bristolcat at 9:30 AM on January 13, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the advice, everyone. It's reassuring to hear that this kind of thing is not that uncommon, and that my general instincts about how to approach this are not too far off the mark. Thanks again!
posted by MadamM at 4:59 PM on January 13, 2010

As a member of Gen Y you are probably naturally more internet-savvy than most older employees at nonprofits. Look up what "prospect research" is (basically, internet stalking potential donors and writing reports to help major gift officers approach them) and how to do it, then maybe offer your services doing that.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:11 PM on January 13, 2010

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