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Nonprofit internships: Can you afford to work for free?
Doing an unpaid internship comes at too high a cost, and that means many cant afford to intern with a nonprofit. - photo by

For recent college grads, sometimes doing an unpaid internship for a nonprofit is a nonoption.

According to a 2010 study by Intern Bridge, unpaid internships make up 57 percent of internships offered by nonprofit organizations. The percentage of unpaid government internships is 48, and for-profit internships is 34.

“I chose to go into nonprofit work, and I really believed in the organization’s mission,” Prisca Edwards, a recent college graduate, told Al Jazeera America. “But it was hard to see peers in different fields making money from internships. It made me think, ‘What am I doing?’”

Another intern, Cortney Harding, completed seven unpaid internships by the time she graduated, and after not finding full-time employment, she told Al Jazeera America, "I felt like I’d been priced out of activism.”

Doing an unpaid internship comes at too high a cost, and that means many can’t afford to intern with a nonprofit.

Of course, budgets at nonprofits are limited, and many unpaid interns are seen as volunteers since the work of nonprofits is often motivated by social activism or repairing inequality.

“In their outward focus on doing good in the world, many nonprofits are losing sight of their own practices — and the old idea that charity begins at home,” Ross Perlin told Al Jazeera. Perlin wrote the book “Intern Nation” and says diversity in nonprofits is lacking because unpaid internships self-select.

“The nonprofit sector risks being discredited as a reliable and representative voice if it lacks diversity," Perlin said to Al Jazeera. "And requiring people to work unpaid to get into the field clearly has negative effects on diversity.”

Robbie Couch wrote for the Huffington Post, “The large portion of unpaid positions in nonprofit work may leave graduates making difficult decisions about their futures. While research found ‘the nonprofit sector remains extremely attractive’ to students, financial hardships may deter them from pursuing employment in those fields: Average student debt has been rising with seven in ten college seniors who graduated in 2012 taking out loans for their education, according to a study by the Institute for College Access & Success. The average amount of debt those students owed was $29,400.”
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