Capacity problems? Interns to the rescue!

By Jacob Sharp, Foundant Technologies

The following article first appeared on Foundant’s blog (March 8, 2017). It is reposted here with permission from Foundant, an Exponent Philanthropy Platinum Sustaining Partner.

As your organization grows and opportunities become more numerous, capacity problems will make themselves known. This is true in both the for-profit and nonprofit sectors, and isn’t something you can power through with talent and gumption–even if that’s what got you this far.

This is a tipping point. You need general operating support, but you also can’t get too crazy, or you might cause your accountant undue stress. Do you hire a new full-time employee? Put out the word for volunteers? Lean on your board for increased support? It’s a question your organization will have to answer sooner or later.

Speaking from experience

Foundant faced this same fork in the road about two years ago. We chose to implement a program that simultaneously solved our capacity problem and continually enriches our local community: student internships. Ambitious, hardworking, and looking to prove themselves, college students are a valuable resource for all types of organizations. And we’re lucky to be in the same community as Montana State University, where so many bright students have chosen to further their education.

The average 20-year-old probably knows more about current technology than someone who graduated in IT ten years ago, and they adapt to new technology quickly. Using the Foundant Client Services team as an example, students can be up and running in our software within two weeks, which leaves our more experienced Client Success Managers time to focus on bigger picture items for our clients, while our student team handles the day-to-day support questions that pop up.

Foundant interns work in our Client Services team, Operations team, and Marketing team. And we continually look for new ways we can utilize their youth, energy, and natural curiosity to build capacity and strengthen the Foundant core team.

Related: What I Learned Interning at a Small Foundation >>

You might be thinking, “I work in the nonprofit sector. The time it would take just to interview and then onboard temporary interns wouldn’t be worth the effort. We don’t have the resources!” In fact, that’s exactly the primary objection Becky Franks, Executive Director of Cancer Support Community (CSC) Montana, says she hears when speaking with other nonprofits about implementing intern programs. But, it seems she’s found the magic formula.

As a fundraising organization, CSC holds two major events each year: their annual Gala and their Cruisin’ for a Cause car show. Executing major fundraising events like these takes a lot of planning and resources. If you’re already experiencing capacity strains, an upcoming event can feel like the weight of the world. Becky has put systems in place to hire an intern each time an event is coming up on their calendar. She knows what needs to be done and creates a “project guide” so that it’s fairly easy for a new person to pick up on the logistics. But, essentially, the intern owns that project.

When you “chunk out” something as a project, it’s easy to have them run it. They’re smart. And taking 1-2 hours a week to manage their work versus putting everything on myself is a huge time saver. ~Becky Franks, Cancer Support Community (CSC) Montana

Allowing an intern to take ownership of a project from start to finish not only saves you and your organization valuable time and resources but also gives the student a real-life project to add to their resume. CSC hires interns for five months at a time, just enough to get the project done without expanding the job requirements much past a semester.

What about paying them?

There are many ways to look at paid versus unpaid internships. No matter what you choose to do, it’s critical that you consider what the college students are getting out of it and what they will have to give up in order to work with you.

At Foundant, we pay our interns. We place high value on the excellent resources they provide and understand that we could not be as successful as we are without helping them succeed. We also stress that they are part of the team–from the interview process to training, they get the same experience anyone else would.

If paying interns is not an option for your organization at this time, that’s OK. But, it is important to keep in mind that unpaid interns are not the same as volunteers. The time they’re spending at your organization means less time they can spend on school projects, studying, or at the paying jobs that most of them need to continue their college careers. As their supervisor, it’s your duty to make sure they are given meaningful work and solid learning experiences. Gone are the days when interns fetch coffee or file paperwork all day.

What can interns do?

Anything!

Becky notes that, by leveraging the Answer Library in her GrantHub system, she is even able to hand off some of her grant writing workload to interns. This opens up time for her to cultivate relationships with donors, oversee big-picture initiatives like the opening of their sister center in Kalispell, MT, and pay special attention to the people who rely on CSC for support everyday.

At Foundant, we’ve been able to hand many projects to interns that otherwise might not have been completed: video testimonials, infographics, spreadsheet and database cleanup, social media posting, phone support, template building, and more. The interns are, essentially, our team’s support–throughout the organization.

But we wouldn’t have been able to do any of this without having processes and tools in place to support our interns and ensure their success. And that’s what you’ll need to do in order to create a successful intern program.

Start simple. Outline the projects you need to get done, but don’t have the capacity to complete at this time. Then break those down into actionable steps. What steps absolutely must be done by you or an experienced staff member? And which ones could be given to an intern?

Are there things like monthly, quarterly, or annual events that are a consistent drain on resources? By outlining processes for those things that are ongoing, you should be able to hand off much of the work to an intern. But don’t just turn them into “go-fers.” They need to feel like they have a stake in whatever project they’re given, and they need to understand the value they’re adding to the organization.

I started as an intern at Foundant and stayed on as a full-time Client Success Manager after graduating in Spring 2016. If Foundant hadn’t offered such a valuable internship experience, I’m not sure if I would have jumped at the opportunity when it was offered. I’m proud to have started my career with a company that places such high value on students.

Jacob Sharp is a Client Success Manager (CSM) at Foundant Technologies, spending his days interacting with funders at various levels in their granting activities to ensure successful outcomes with our grants management software. Jacob spends his free time writing, reading, and ‘absorbing the world.’ And, occasionally, escaping into the mountains around Bozeman, MT.

One thought on “Capacity problems? Interns to the rescue!

  1. Great piece. The definition of an intern has changed since the days I was an intern in Washington DC. There are strict guidelines on what makes up an internship. Thus it is best to work through an internship program at a college/university campus that can assure that you are meeting all the requirements.

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