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5 Reasons To Intern With a Nonprofit Organization

August 21, 2012

Natalie Dance (@natcdance) is a marketing student at Brigham Young University and a summer associate with Ashoka USA. After graduation, Natalie plans to pursue a career in tech marketing. Her interests include running, salsa dancing, painting, hiking, biking, and reading. She is also a social entrepreneurship enthusiast, an animal-lover, and an ice cream addict. Connect on LinkedIn // G+ // Blog.

Natalie DanceBy Natalie Dance

I spent my summer interning for Ashoka in Washington, DC. Ashoka is a network of social entrepreneurs (known as Ashoka Fellows) who are out to fix some of the world’s toughest problems—people like Wendy Kopp of Teach for America or Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia. Ashoka finds and supports these entrepreneurs to help them spread their ideas across the globe.

I had a great experience at Ashoka, and I know the things I learned there will be applicable in my future whether I decide to stay in the nonprofit sector or try my hand and the corporate world.  In case any of you are on the fence about a nonprofit internship, here are five lessons I learned.

1. Nonprofits are looking for hard skills

“It’s not enough that you want to ‘help people’… you must obtain the specific skills that will help propel that change forward.”

After interning with Ashoka this summer, I learned that nonprofits have a desperate need for hard skills—skills like finance, accounting, photography, writing, web programming, and videography.  It’s not enough that you want to “help people” and you “hope to change the world;” you must obtain the specific skills that will help propel that change forward. Hard skills are just as crucial in the nonprofit sector as in the corporate or for-profit world.

2. Nonprofits are the best place for career exploration

The dearth of nonprofit employees with hard skills can sometimes work to your advantage as an intern, however; you will have the chance to try a range of projects simply because there aren’t enough people with the both the skills and the time to complete them.

I got to explore a variety of career paths as an Ashoka communications intern. Designing posters gave me insights about what it would be like to work as a graphic designer. Writing and editing blog posts opened my eyes to the possibilities of a career in journalism. Drafting Tweets and Facebook posts let me see what it would be like to pursue internet marketing. I even got to try my hand at storyboarding a video:

3. Who you work with is just as important as what you do

Although I loved the work I did with Ashoka, my team members made my internship so much more enjoyable. I was surrounded by some of the kindest, smartest, and most talented people I have ever met. From my Danish supervisor with an impressive background in political campaigns, to the Chilean former magazine editor who served as our director, to the Ashoka-writer-by-day, lead-guitarist-by-night Stanford grad, each member of the Ashoka USA team helped me grow by sharing new perspectives, knowledge, and friendship. I learned that great teammates are an essential component to finding satisfaction in your work.

4. Ambiguity is a blessing and a curse

Ashoka is a network of social entrepreneurs, so entrepreneurialism is highly valued and assignments are not always spelled out for you. It can be a great learning opportunity when your supervisor comes to you and says, “We should try doing a crowdfunding campaign—can you look into that?”

With few specific guidelines, you have the opportunity to add your own ideas and perspectives to the project. However, loose project guidelines can also leave you feeling a little lost, confused, or stuck. In a workplace that thrives on ambiguity, you must be willing to hit the ground running and ask for more direction when you need it.

5.Don’t lose sight of the “why”

In the day-to-day grind of meetings and project deadlines, it can be easy to lose sight of the bigger picture—the “why” of all your work. Taking the time to regain some perspective about why you do what you do can serve as powerful motivation. For me that perspective came every time I attended a “brown bag luncheon” with an Ashoka Fellow. Hearing the fellows explain how their ideas are solving social problems and and how Ashoka has helped them to get those ideas off the ground served as a reminder and a strong motivator for me.

My experience at Ashoka this summer has been invaluable and will serve me for years to come. I learned so much, and I would recommend a nonprofit internship to anyone.

Thanks Natalie, your experience is inspiring! Readers, did this inspire you to intern with a nonprofit? Search nonprofit internships.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

The intern September 23, 2012 at 6:38 pm

Dear Natalie,

Thank you so much for posting your inspiring story, your lovely words about non-profit organizations and all the challenges you have to face on a daily basis. However, when the dream becomes a nightmare you end up loosing track on what you were focusing for your career. I was an intern at a prestigious institution in New York City which I am not afraid to say their name because I want to warn next interns who might end up there, just like me… It's The Gabarron Foundation – Carriage House Center for the Arts. It's a family run foundation lacking on many ethical points. After dismissing the only officially hired/paid manager and an exceptional exhibitions coordinator (who was volunteering for more than a year) it's just a matter of time that they will fall apart. There is and was always a lack of planning, and as usual nothing was/is clear. At the moment, when you go there you will only see a couple of interns and the Vice President whose name starts with J. It's not that I didn't learn anything… I learned a lot about making use of a facade full of an invisible prestige. Nothing works and everything is taken care in a such unprofessional way. Not to mention that what I have seen during Exhibitions which were paid to be made in a certain way and the table moves around. The openings are great and the curators are so happy. You can't imagine what happens afterwards… Prospective interns this is just my advice.

Good luck,
The intern


Natalie Hunnicutt November 8, 2012 at 9:07 am

Dear Natalie,
Thanks for posting such an inspiring and informative story. Your experiences have delineated just what approaches one should take in order to obtain the skills and field of their choice. Had it not been for your story, I don't think I would have been able to answer some of my unanswered questions had I not encountered this posting. Again, thanks for sharing your journey. Also, I wish you much success in launching your career. Let the sky be y


Boubacar Souley January 2, 2013 at 2:49 am

Internship is process to get enough information in the fact to part of the big active family. this experience will open door to the fresh student to answer and learn practically the skills and knowledge th


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