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5 Ways Nonprofits Can Engage Their Millennial Interns

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Hello. I’m Hunter, and I’m a millennial.

Yes, it’s true, and I feel as though I often say it as a confession. But in the midst of all the challenges my generation needs to work through, I believe I’ve stumbled across at least one redeeming quality: we are cause-driven.

We have big dreams, we recognize there is a disparity between the way things could be and the way things are, and many of us have a burning sensation in our chests that we don’t know what to do with.

And this is where you come in, dedicated nonprofit worker. You know what to do with it–the burning. You are a dreamer, a visionary–and a doer.

I have aspiration and enthusiasm, but what I need, desperately, is someone to help direct the drive. That someone could be you. And incorporating an internship program at your nonprofit, or taking your current internship program more seriously, is a good way to be that someone.

But before I send you on your way with this abstract, idealistic, dreamy, romantic, TED-talky, expectedly millennial idea of inspiring someone like me to make incredible change in this world, I’ll give you some specific points to think about when it comes to working with interns.

1) Let interns know that you know that they know very little.

When my supervisor at Bloomerang made it clear that he doesn’t expect me to know the industry or the way the company operates, I felt instantaneous relief. I was trying to fool people around me by remaining quiet when I didn’t have a clue what they were talking about, and I only asked questions when I thought they might actually make me sound smart-ish.

Once this “anti-expectation” is communicated to your interns then you can go about setting appropriate, helpful expectations. Beyond finishing assigned tasks and working in a professional manner, expect your interns to ask questions, share ideas and provide feedback on their experience. You might need to communicate this several times before it sinks in.

2) Teach them to own their ideas.

Earlier this semester I presented some work to my supervisor and another colleague that I wasn’t confident of, and as they looked over it, I started to say, “I wasn’t sure if I should put that in there.” In unison, as if rehearsed, they said, “Own it, Hunter!” I bet they don’t even remember saying this, but it was a timely encouragement. I needed to learn that it’s often better to share my thoughts even if they are not perfectly packaged.

Interns have a way of forgetting that you are a person and that your thoughts are fallible too. Make it clear that your idea is not the best idea, but the best idea is the best idea. Then encourage them to share and be confident in theirs.

3) Empower staff to take interns under their wings.

One of the most helpful aspects of my experience at Bloomerang has been working among the marketing team. Every day I swivel around in my chair and ask someone, “Whatcha doin?” And every day I’m surprised and thankful for the insights they are willing to share.

Give your intern an opportunity to learn about the many facets of your organization from the many faces of your organization. Not only can this lighten your load (because we know having an intern takes work), but it can give other staff the opportunity to hone and show their management skills.

4) Value the intern’s skills.

I spoke with a friend yesterday who has been interning at a place where he “feels more like a convenience than an asset.” If the intern is only doing the tasks that no one else wants to do, then their experience will be horrible, and you will miss out on future interns (not to mention the skills that this person could provide you today). My friend has been studying marketing and finance for three years, and he actually wants to put into practice what he’s learned. Give the kid a chance.

Conduct a needs assessment for your organization, and set your interns loose on specific projects. But also encourage them to recognize other needs/problems and find solutions on their own. They might surprise you… and themselves!

5) Don’t be afraid of assigning some grunt work.

My Bloomerang teammates have been so thoughtful about giving me value-adding work to do, and I’m very grateful. Interns’ favorite work is difference-making, project work. We hate hate hate feeling like a waste of space and we want to walk away from our experience and have something to show for it. That being said, I’ve told my supervisor that I don’t mind doing some “menial tasks” if it actually serves a purpose.

Give your interns real work experience (e.g. cleaning the bathroom and scanning documents) if that is what it takes to keep you operational. We need to see that it takes a lot of hard, tedious work to make something great.

But the greatest service you could do for an intern like me, is help discover and hone my passions and convince me that I don’t just have to dream. I can do.

I’m a millennial, and I approve this message.

But that’s enough about me, what do you think about me? Your thoughts are welcomed below!

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  • Christina Gasse

    So insightful, Mr. Hughes.
  • Katie Krueger

    Great post! While I was still an intern, I sat in on a round table of nonprofits trying to maximize their internship programs. The input I gave that made a lot of light bulbs go off was similar to your #5: When I was assigned a menial task, I asked myself, "If I weren't around, would someone else be doing this job?" If the answer was yes, I'd do it happily. If the answer was no, it's not a task that an intern should be given.
  • PoPo

    HUNTER !!! That's a terrific blog! Superb writing and descriptions. You really ought to write a novel. makes me want to sign up! PoPo
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