Opinion: Hot issue - Is it right for voluntary groups to take on interns without any pay?

Oxfam has decided to scrap its paid internship programme and replace it with a voluntary scheme where participants can also have part-time jobs. Is this a good precedent for the rest of the voluntary sector to follow?

YES - Julia Huber, researcher and intern co-ordinator, Demos

The financial and organisational constraints faced by many not-for-profit and voluntary sector organisations make it extremely difficult to offer fully paid internships. Often the choice is between taking on interns without any pay or not taking on any at all.

Internship programmes are immensely beneficial for both the host organisation and the intern, especially in terms of mutual learning. They have also become a major route into permanent employment.

However, the fact that internships are often unpaid means that a significant number of young people who cannot afford to work without pay for several weeks or months are excluded from the learning experiences and job opportunities that internships often provide.

If we want to ensure they are open to a wide and diverse range of young people, we need to fundamentally rethink the current system. Offering flexible hours or part-time internships that allow participants to get jobs to fund them is certainly a step towards addressing the issue of accessibility and improving it.

The European Commission's Leonardo Da Vinci programme, which gives out grants for work-related stays abroad, is one example of how we could achieve this goal.

YES - Andrew Blyth, project development assistant, the World Land Trust

I find it strange that there is criticism about not paying interns. I do not come from a wealthy background, but I would never have been offered a paid job because I would have been overshadowed by others with more experience.

It is difficult to get paid work in the environment and conservation arena without experience. Unpaid internships act as a filter and do not generally attract graduates who don't know what they want to do. If you are committed, there is a way into the sector of your choice.

Many small charities cannot afford to pay their interns - in any case, it would be likely to make the field more competitive. Being able to claim benefits and work part-time helps financially, so I believe that it is within any single, unattached person's grasp to work unpaid for six months - particularly if it means you are more likely to get a job of your choice at the end of it.

My experience as an unpaid intern has been highly enjoyable. I have gained great experience and a wealth of relevant knowledge and contacts - factors that are vital in securing that ever-important paid job. Without being an intern, it is unlikely that I would have had these opportunities.

YES - Janet Fleming, head of the Voluntary Sector National Training Organisation

The contribution of flexible and motivated volunteers is central to the work of many voluntary and community organisations. Some 27 per cent of the population formally volunteer for clubs, societies and organisations at least once a month.

Internships and more formal placements, such as the 20-day placement arranged as part of the NCVO's Working for a Charity foundation course, are excellent means of gaining experience for those looking to work in the sector. They are also a way in which an individual can make a real contribution to a cause he or she believes in.

However, we must ensure that interns and volunteers are properly managed and supported. Sadly, this is not always the case, and this is not only a problem for the voluntary and community sector. The private sector also uses unpaid internships on a large scale. In the voluntary and community sector, at least, we have a history of voluntarism and have only recently developed occupational standards for managing volunteers.

The relationship between a charity and a volunteer should be one of mutual benefit - one that builds the capacity of the organisation but also acts as a rewarding and useful learning experience for the participant.

YES - Udeni Salmon, head of volunteer support, Leonard Cheshire

It is patronising and cynical to assume that people who donate their time are being exploited by voluntary organisations. Volunteering brings time and skills to a charity - in return, volunteers receive training, work experience and a personal sense of satisfaction that paid work can rarely provide. Leonard Cheshire has a spectrum of volunteering opportunities, including fundraising, strategic management, overseas placements and sailing.

Disabled people are disproportionately represented among the unemployed.

Internships can be a vital way of building their skills and confidence as well as convincing potential employers that disabled people have something to offer. Leonard Cheshire has recruited two disabled asylum seekers, who are both interns in our central office; they see their volunteering role as maintaining their self-respect, developing useful skills and reminding society that they can give something back to the UK. Oxfam has realised that it is better to have short-term, committed volunteers than badly paid, badly motivated interns. At Leonard Cheshire, we have more than 3,000 volunteers who work together with staff to improve the lives of disabled people worldwide.

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