As thousands of recent graduates with charity career ambitions trawl the internet for jobs, many will be blissfully unaware of the inaccessibility of obtaining a prized job in the voluntary sector. Research by Charlotte Gerada, recently published with Unite Union, reveals that entry-level charity jobs are almost non-existent, and instead, the sector is fraught with unpaid internships, which are generally of little benefit to the charity or intern.
University careers departments and recruitment websites are full of adverts for unpaid charity internship opportunities, lasting anything between 3 to 18 months. Charities of all sizes are capitalising on the passion and persistence of many young people, by offering unpaid work that is often unfulfilling, unrewarding and doesn’t lead to a job. As a result, the sector is becoming incredibly elitist – only people who can afford to work for free for long periods of time can access charity jobs, leaving talented people from less wealthy backgrounds shut out from the sector.
Research, media coverage and commentary around unpaid internships tends to focus on creative and political internships, meaning little is known about the quantity and quality of internships in the voluntary sector. However, what is clear from an online survey of 206 students/graduates is that unpaid internships in the sector are common. Of the 72% respondents that had completed an internship, the most popular field was the charitable sector (52%). Over half of those who interned were paid expenses only (51%), over a third were paid (36%) and over a fifth were paid nothing at all (21%). A majority of respondents that interned for a minimum of expenses thought unpaid internships weren’t justifiable (53%), whilst the remainder had split opinion – 23% thought they were justifiable and 23% were unsure. This hints at the conflicting perspectives around whether unpaid charity internships are more justifiable than those in other sectors. Many respondents were sympathetic towards charities because of potential budgetary constraints and their pursuit of social good, which made them more worthy of unpaid support. However, what the final open-ended question of the survey revealed, was that many thought unpaid interns had been utilised to replace paid members of staff – something that was viewed as inherently exploitative.
Internships in the UK become mainstream, but have no legal grounding. The National Minimum Wage (NMW) Act outlines a hierarchy of employer-employee relationships, with ‘employees’ having highest status and protections, ‘workers’ second and a legal calve-out for ‘voluntary workers’ and ‘statutory bodies’, which includes pay exemption to protect volunteer activity within charities. This legislative caveat has complicated whether internships in the voluntary sector should be deemed as formal work, and the only avenue that has been used to challenge unpaid internships is through employment tribunals. Therefore, there may be circumstances where an ‘intern’ could be classified as a ‘worker’, entitling them to the NMW. This depends on if the ‘volunteering’ mimics employment, for example: having set working hours, tasks, deadlines and reliance on the individual for the everyday functioning of the organisation. As the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s ‘Learning and Talent Development’ survey report illuminates, the volunteer/worker distinction is very important as charities may couch an internship as a volunteering opportunity, to circumvent paying a wage.
Out of the 206 survey respondents, the most common internship duration was 1 to 3 months (47%), where many worked full-time hours: 48% interned full-time for 5 days on average, 33% interned for 3 to 4 days, and nearly two-thirds worked full-time hours (7-9 hours average per day). The hours and days worked by these intern-respondents are incredibly similar to full-time paid jobs, because of the rigidity and required commitment – meaning they could have been illegal.
From interviewing 7 charities of various sizes and scope, most were fully aware of the legalities around ‘volunteers’ and that ‘intern’ is a fabricated title, yet several still referred to ‘unpaid workers’ as ‘volunteers’ to avoid responsibility for employee rights. Despite the non-paying charities explicitly stating that interns work full-time days/hours, for a set period of time, they didn’t recognise that the internships may still be illegal. And interestingly, there wasn’t a connection between charity size and likelihood of paying interns. Most of the large interviewed charities with multi-million pound turnovers didn’t pay, whilst several smaller charities did.
It was evident that pay was correlated with quality of tasks and level of responsibility given: if interns were paid, their work was viewed as an important and valuable; if interns weren’t paid, their contribution was seen as peripheral and unnecessary. For one large national charity, and one small London-based one, unpaid interns’ work output was viewed as minimal. This is contrary to charities that did pay. One small intern-paying charity stated that “each intern is core and integral to the work and aims of the organisation” and are regarded as “key members of the team”.
This research suggests that not paying interns is a vicious cycle: charities that don’t pay generate non-essential tasks, leading charities to believe that interns benefit more from the internship, reinforcing justification to not pay. Thus, charities and interns gain little from the arrangement. Charities that do pay interns, invest in the experience, generating relevant and valuable tasks, beneficial to both parties. This is consistent with survey respondents, who outlined the impact of pay on the quality of internship.
Beyond individual-level drawbacks, not paying interns could have wider negative social and labour market outcomes. Socially, a lack of accessibility and equality of opportunity could lead to the sector becoming less diverse and more elitist, further halting social mobility. In terms of wider labour market implications, many interviewed charities admitted that unpaid internships reduced entry-level positions and depressed wages in the sector.
As a result of this elitism and inaccessibility, the voluntary sector is losing out on talented, passionate and committed young people, and runs the risk of becoming a sector reserved for those from wealthy backgrounds. Charities also put themselves at danger of looking hypocritical and juxtaposed: charities, which are perceived as leading in ethical activity, are actually exacerbating existing socio-economic inequalities. It’s about time that the exploitative nature of the voluntary sector is exposed, to empower unpaid interns to challenge illegal internships, and to end illegal, unpaid work in the sector.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the British Politics and Policy blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Please read our comments policy before posting.
Charlotte Gerada currently works for a leading youth and education charity, City Year UK, and is responsible for supporting the charity’s public affairs, policy and communications work. Prior to this, Charlotte completed an MSc Global Governance and Ethics from University College London, with a specific focus on third sector policy and management, and a BSc Social Policy with Government from the London School of Economics.