Once upon a time, there was a young woman named Rose, who worked as an intern for “Org X,” an NGO that sold useful products at affordable prices to people living in slums and also employed youth from those slums to do so, thus making impact at both the individual and household levels. Rose wanted to contribute more to the organization, so she worked hard on an idea to persuade a high-profile company to provide its product to Org X at a discount. She used her personal networks to build a corporate partnership that would improve the lives of Org X’s ultimate beneficiaries. Sadly, the program failed; ultimately, the Org X’s youth sales agents felt that the cheaper product didn’t provide them a big enough commission, and they refused to market it.

This is the type of well-intentioned failure that is endemic to social innovation work. But it wasn’t a total loss by any means. On the contrary: Rose learned—in a hands-on, unforgettable way—an invaluable lesson about the process of social change that she could never have gained through a $150,000 Ivy-League MBA. And the next time she pursues an idea, she will have a better understanding of what it takes to succeed, and be more prepared to anticipate problems and overcome barriers in her path.

This is why social sector internships are so important. Even though they sometimes get a bad rap, they remain one of the best educational tools for people entering the field.

Concrete outcomes aren’t the only indicator of success.

Over the last four years, at Amani Institute, through our Post-Graduate Certificate in Social Innovation Management, we have set up more than 115 internships in Nairobi, Kenya, and Sao Paulo, Brazil, for people from more than 40 countries. (We call internships “apprenticeships” as part of the growing practice in social innovation education to help students “apprentice with a problem” they care about.)

The interns have ranged in age from 21 to 65 and have wide-ranging backgrounds; we’ve placed former Ikea managers, refugees, artists, and investment bankers who are all in various stages of building a career in the social sector.

We’ve learned a lot through this process. Initially, we defined a “successful” placement as one in which both the host organization and the interns could point to concrete impact outcomes. But over time we also realized that there is rarely a “failed internship” for the intern. If we can focus on the learning derived from the experience, then every apprenticeship can be successful. (Of course, this doesn’t preclude the need for the host organization to gain some sort of value).

Specifically for interns, we’ve found that an experience that enables them to articulate robust answers to the following questions leads to a great internship experience (even if it’s not always a pleasant one):

  1. What have you learned about how social change actually happens?
  2. What are the areas of dysfunction in the social sector, and are you able to accept that in order to work there?
  3. What did you learn about yourself as a professional, and how might that guide your next career move?

Important factors of a rewarding internship

The four guidelines below can help you ensure that your organization offers worthwhile internship experiences. (I have framed these guidelines for the internship host, but potential interns may also find them useful in shaping internship opportunities.)

  1. Assign the right project. Give the intern a specific, bite-sized project to work on, one with a defined end goal within their internship period. Don’t just have them be another hand on deck. The best projects are those that are low stakes (no real consequence for failure because someone else can re-do it) but high impact (could really help the organization if it succeeds). This way you have incentive to give the intern a meaningful experience but also reduced pressure about the outcome of their work. Examples of such projects could include feasibility research for an expansion or new product, or creating new marketing materials, and so on. We’ve also learned that it is more effective and less risky if the project is about internal process improvement compared to a client-facing project. Most interns will desire to have exposure to clients or beneficiaries, but it’s rare that they can make concrete progress on a client-facing project in just a few months.
  2. Frame expectations and context for the intern. Interns usually come in with high hopes. It’s important to set their expectations realistically. Let them know that there is a high probability their project will fail—as noted above, failure is endemic to social change interventions, so they should get used to it. Seeing failure as learning is not only emotionally helpful but also (as in Rose’s case) invaluable if they can harvest insights from the experience that will inform their future work. Another important variable is helping your intern understand the organization’s personality: its founders, founding story, core values, institutional culture, major triumphs and disasters, and so on. This will help them understand why certain things happen the way they do and take their cues accordingly.
  3. Fit the nature of the work to the intern’s personality. You have an extroverted intern keen to learn about bottom-of-the-pyramid customers? Don’t stick them behind a desk all day. On the other hand, if your intern likes working alone, don’t put them with a team of gregarious people who all talk at once. Match the working style demanded by the project with the intern’s personality. The more comfortable the intern is with how they need to operate, the more likely they are to do great work. There are a number of personality tests that can help you align your interns to the projects that best suit them, from the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator to Gallup’s Strengths Finder to the Enneagram. If your organization already uses one of these tools for team building, then have your interns take it as well.
  4. Assign an internal champion, not just a manager. The intern is essentially a new staff member who doesn’t know anyone and isn’t really expected to succeed. If they are to add value in a short time, they must have a manager who sees what the organization (and in particular, the manager’s particular area of the organization) has to gain from the arrangement. Seeing the potential value of the intern will naturally lead a manager to be a better champion of the intern’s efforts: by advocating for them in meetings, making introductions, providing real-time feedback, shielding them from company politics, and so on.

People who have poor internship experiences often come to the regretful conclusion that the social sector isn’t for them. We believe that emphasizing the learning experience of an internship, and setting it up as we have described, makes a real difference. Given how vital internships are to bring much-needed talent into the sector, it’s critical for both sides to set internships up for success from the start.

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