Unpaid internships should not be used to displace paid staff or undercut their pay and conditions of service, a new guide from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations has warned.
The report, Volunteer Internships in the Voluntary Sector – review and guidance, says unpaid internships that are, in effect, jobs rather than genuine volunteering opportunities, should be paid.
"There is a lack of empirical evidence, but the consensus is that the number of volunteer interns charities are recruiting has increased in recent years, perhaps as a consequence of stretched funding and the growing availability of potential volunteers in a tough employment market for young people," the report says.
"We are concerned that some charities have come to rely on interns’ enthusiasm but have not always done enough to support them. No charity sets out to exploit volunteers, but there is a concern that some have come to rely on volunteer interns to carry out tasks that do not offer them the development opportunities that the term ‘intern’ will have led them to expect."
Commenting on the report, Justin Davis Smith, director of volunteering at the NCVO, said: "There should be no such thing as an ‘unpaid internship’ in charities. The law here is quite clear: a role should either be a paid one or a proper volunteer role."
The guidance, developed with input from charities including the RSPB, Marie Curie Cancer Care and Cancer Research UK, says that charities should not favour job applicants who have carried out unpaid internships because they risk undermining fair recruitment procedures.
It says that although it is reasonable for charities to ask applicants to demonstrate commitment to the organisation and cause area, they should ensure that they do not discriminate against those who might have as much potential but have not had the opportunity to carry out an internship or a voluntary role.
"Voluntary organisations should seek to avoid relying on the fact of having undertaken a voluntary internship to distinguish between otherwise equally well-matched candidates, and give due weight to other demonstrations of commitment or interest," it says.
Among a number of recommendations for charities, the guidance says that volunteers must be allowed flexibility to study or work around their volunteering and warns that stipulating that the roles are nine-to-five, five-days-a-week could be incompatible with minimum-wage law. Charities should also be flexible on location to avoid a London bias, it says, and they should pay expenses.
Davis Smith said that charities should not exploit interns, many of whom were in a particularly vulnerable position at the start of their careers. "In the current job market, many feel that gaining experience this way is the only route to the careers they want," he said.
"Charities need to ensure that they are not inadvertently taking advantage of this by ensuring that these volunteers get the genuine skills development that they are hoping for. We’ve seen positive examples of charities that invest seriously in creating internship schemes that offer volunteers substantial support and development, and this is a standard all should be aspiring to."