People Management: Unpaid interns 'a return to the 1800s'

Indira Das-Gupta

Charities that offer unwaged internships risk becoming too selective.

Charities that offer unpaid internships are regressing to Victorian times, when the sector was dominated by rich philanthropists, according to the director of the Charities Advisory Trust.

Hilary Blume believes charities that do not pay their interns need to re-address this practice. She says: "The directors of these charities do not work for free - what if they were asked to take half a salary to save money? What kind of a sector do they think this is? It reminds me of the 19th century, when it was mainly rich ladies supported by their husbands who volunteered for charities."

The Charities Advisory Trust offers 75 places to interns every year, at a salary of £13,250 pro rata. Demand for these places is high, with an average of 600 applications for the spaces available.

Some are eventually offered jobs. Alice Lovegrove started with the trust as an intern and is now Blume's full-time assistant. "I couldn't have done the internship if it was unpaid because I had to move from Wales," she says. "A lot of charity head offices are based in London, so if you don't live there you are already at a disadvantage.

"The money I got as an intern wasn't a massive amount, but it was enough to get by on. If you pay people, they are more likely to be committed and won't just see it as a means to an end. I still do some voluntary work - sometimes, when you are really tired, you can't help but think about how you're not being paid for it."

The UN refugee agency UNHCR offers 10 six-month internships a year, but only reimburses travel within Greater London.

Clare Graham, who helps organise the internship programme, says: "Of course, it's not ideal that they are unpaid, but we simply don't have the budget to run paid positions. Not all the interns we've had have come from privileged backgrounds, but they have all managed to get by. It does make it more selective, but you could argue that only asking for graduates is selective already."

Duncan Trevan did two six-month internships at different charities. During the first, which was at UNHCR, he worked 9am-5pm every weekday and would then go and work at Pizza Express until midnight. He says: "It shouldn't be so hard. People from disadvantaged backgrounds probably wouldn't even contemplate doing it."

For his second internship, Trevan was lucky enough to get a scholarship through the Quaker Peace and Social Witness Peaceworker scheme, which he used to live on for the six months he spent at Peace Workers UK. Last year, there were 74 applicants for just one internship.

Trevan says: "UNHCR is looking at ways to fund internships through law firms - there needs to be more creative thinking like this on the issue, as well as more scholarships.

"Perhaps internships could be means-tested. Helping more people who want to work for charities is a way of investing in the sector's future."

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