Behind the Scenes on Nonprofit Internships

Contributors: Khamiah Alderman, Student and Intern; Caroline McDowell, Marketing & Communications Manager; April Turner, Student and Intern, North Carolina Center for Nonprofits

There are plenty of how-to’s and articles on how to design a successful internship. But I’ve yet to read the follow up on just how successful these steps and recommendations are and how interns fare as and after they’re interning. That seems most important because these students and young people are our up and coming nonprofit professionals and leaders and we want their experiences to affirm their passion for mission-driven work, encourage their participation and new ideas, and help them build a network and career path within the nonprofit sector.

So let’s break down the most common internship recommendations and see how they held up to the expectations and outcomes of real-life interns – in this case, April Turner and Khamiah Alderman, students at UNC Chapel Hill and summer interns at the Center through the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation’s Non-Profit Internship Program.


Recommendation #1: Have a Well-Developed Project Plan

Develop a project plan for your internship with clear goals, tasks, expectations, timelines, and check ins. It’s also helpful to have an orientation or onboarding process like you would for any new hire to introduce them to your organization’s history, mission, values, policies, programs, and staff.

Our Interns’ Experience

Khamiah is no stranger to nonprofit work. She is an ambassador for the Young Black Leadership Alliance in Charlotte and volunteer with Book Harvest in Durham.

Khamiah: Going into my internship, I hoped to learn more about nonprofit operations and how to be a better leader within my community. As I neared the end of my internship, I am happy to say that I achieved these goals. With the help of my supervisors and CEO, I was able to take on projects that required me to research and apply the research to impact both the Center and nonprofits in NC. I have gained skills in Microsoft Excel and public speaking that will be useful in both my academic and professional journey.


Recommendation #2: Supervise Interns

Designate a direct manager or supervisor to advise and support your intern. This creates structure and allows for mentoring, communication, and feedback.

Our Interns’ Experience

April is also a ‘child of the nonprofit sector.’ She grew up volunteering with many nonprofits to give back to the sector that had given to her family, and saw the opportunity to intern with a nonprofit as a way to go beyond the role of volunteer.

April: The wonderful thing about nearly all internships is that they want you to thrive and gain as much knowledge as you hope to. It doesn’t matter if you have already asked five questions that day. Your supervisor/mentor is there to help you, just as much as you are there to help them and the organization. Who knows – the questions you ask may be vital to the project at hand or might start the wheels turning for other projects.

Khamiah: It took a week or two for my supervisors and me to get adjusted but once we did, we worked together phenomenally. My supervisors were mentors and treated me like a peer. They provided resources and advice that was helpful with my projects as well as life in general. I am thankful for their patience, trust, and willingness to help.


Recommendation #3: Let Interns Work

Provide your intern with meaningful work and professional development. Recognize the different experiences, strengths, and skills your intern brings and encourage them to draw and build on them within the scope of the projects. Encourage your intern to work across departments and with other staff. Invite them into your workplace culture by including them in your staff and committee meetings when appropriate, program events, and staff social events.

Our Interns’ Experience

April: One of my absolute favorite things about this internship has been the trust that has been placed in me and the seat I have been given at so many tables. From my supervisors to the executive director, everyone has trusted me and all that I do in ways that are beyond appreciated. It has also been so amazing to be invited into so many different meetings to see how things run in a nonprofit. I think one thing that all organizations can do is truly value the presence of interns the way the Center has by allowing them to sit in on meetings, even if they aren’t directly related to the intern’s project.

Khamiah: What I liked best about my internship is the trust and independence my supervisors have given me. I appreciate their faith in me completing the assigned tasks and projects, and how each was a learning experience and became an opportunity to grow. The staff was also helpful in giving feedback on my projects which made them stronger. I also enjoyed the Center including me in important meetings and widening my horizons.


Recommendation #4: Connect the Work and Mission

Explain or show how the intern’s project(s) fit into and advance your organization’s mission. It’s helpful for any person coming to your organization to understand what you do and why it matters.

Our Interns’ Experience

April: With two nonprofit internships under my belt, I decided that I wanted to learn even more and I knew the Center was the place to do so. Before beginning and learning more about it, I viewed the Center as an umbrella that covered nonprofits all over North Carolina. I viewed it (and still do) as the perfect place to learn more about nonprofits, slightly more top-down than what I was ‘used’ to. My instincts were right because my time with the Center allowed me to do just that and round out my knowledge with respect to nonprofits, and also put what I have learned in the classroom to use and really see it for what it is. As my internship ends, I know I will walk away feeling like my work meant something because of how it will be used even after I am gone – to better the nonprofit sector in the face of big challenges.

Khamiah: Before my internship, I was not aware of capacity-building agencies and how they assist nonprofits in fulfilling their potential to help the community. Once I learned the Center's role in uplifting nonprofits, I adapted to my role as an intern at the Center.

Nonprofits are the backbone to keep our communities supported and empowered. They provide underserved communities with resources and second chances that were denied by others. My internship projects taught me how difficult it has been for nonprofits to operate during the pandemic. However, I was happy to learn that the Center is an advocate for more funds and resources for nonprofits. With their leadership in advocacy, I was able to gain more experience on effective ways to advocate for nonprofits and for the things I care about.

I want to be the catalyst for change in my community, just like how nonprofits are for theirs. I aspire to be a leader in my community by disrupting the injustices in the education system and providing children with an education full of equity. With the help of this internship, I learned what it takes to create your own nonprofit, gained skills in advocating for nonprofits, and developed researching skills. I will take all the information and skills I learned from the Center with me in my journey of strengthening the education system.


Recommendation #5: Pay Your Interns

Seriously, budget for and pay your interns. Ensure your organization is practicing equity and offering fair wages so these young people can cover their housing, transportation, and other living costs while focusing their time, skills, and effort on their internship.

Our Interns’ Experience

April: By the end of this summer, I will have completed three internships, all through ZSR’s NPIP. As such, they have all been paid internships. The greatest pro of it all is that I have been able to gain a diversity of experience and not juggle a job in order to bring in money.


April’s Parting Advice for Aspiring Interns

  • Trust the Process. I have been around the block a few times applying for internships and only one thing has changed – the way I view the opportunity to participate. The first time I applied for an internship, I was nerve wrecked and not sure what I would do for the summer if I didn’t land one. All of the pressure I put on myself and the prospect of interning made the application process difficult and stressful. This summer, I decided to view it as an opportunity rather than a must. Once I started to focus on all of the things I could do for the summer should an internship fall through, it took away a great deal of stress.
  • Expect the Unexpected. By which I mean keep an open mind. Once you start an internship, the possibilities of where it can take you are endless. Maybe it is a new skill completely unrelated to your role as an intern, maybe it is knowledge you never possessed but will change the way you live your life, etc. Internships are so much more than they seem and offer both hard and soft skills beyond those you might typically envision.
  • Pace Yourself. I’ve seen it and lived it. You get so eager and excited to take on all of the projects you can before the end of your internship and next thing you know, three weeks have passed by and you have completed Every. Single. Project. they had prepared for you. It is great to be a fast worker and to do so efficiently and effectively, but be smart and pace yourself so you really get the most out of everything, big or small.

Khamiah’s Parting Advice for Aspiring Interns

  • Ask for Help. It will be challenging to learn and gain specific skills if you do not reach out to ask. I understand that it may be scary to ask a professional a question, but I promise they are here to help.
  • Take on Challenges. The projects presented by my supervisors made me feel a little nervous at first. I was nervous that I was not going to be able to complete the projects because I was not good enough. But once I took on the projects, I realized that if I hadn’t, I would have missed out on a lot of learning experiences. You have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. If you take the easy way out, you will miss out on so many opportunities.
  • Be Yourself. The Center has taught me that I can be myself in professional spaces. I don’t have to put on a front and be someone I am not. So, relax and let your personality shine.

Considering an internship program at your organization? Here are some resources to help you get started:

Khamiah Alderman is from Charlotte and is a junior majoring in Public Policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (expected graduation May 2023). She interned with the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits during the summer 2021 through the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation’s Non-Profit Internship Program. She is passionate about education policy and closing the racial achievement gap in North Carolina. In her free time, Khamiah enjoys reading and expressing her love for reading by ensuring that children have at-home libraries. When she is not doing schoolwork or reading, she is volunteering for Book Harvest or finding opportunities to expand her knowledge and skill set on education policy.

Caroline McDowell is the marketing & communications manager for the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits. She has been with the Center since 2008 in an evolution of roles from administrative support to her current position. Previously, she worked with the City of Chesterfield (MO), Three Rivers Young Peoples Orchestras (PA), and the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. She earned a BA in creative writing and communications from the University of Pittsburgh. Caroline enjoys having the mountains in one direction and the beach in the other.

April Turner is an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, majoring in Public Policy, with a concentration in Bioethics, Human Rights and Health Policy, as well as a minor in Spanish for the Medical Professions (expected graduation May 2022). She interned with the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits during the summer 2021 through the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation’s Non-Profit Internship Program. April is passionate about the health and well-being of individuals, especially those that are often underrepresented and underserved. In her free time, she enjoys working out, cooking, spending time with her dog, reading, and partaking in service work.


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