Developing Next Practices for Internships in Nonprofit Arts

What strategies can nonprofit arts organizations implement in order to shift the ways we think about internships?

Image: Jack Leahy/The University Times
Image: Jack Leahy/The University Times

Changing perceptions

While working as the executive director of a summer stock theatre company, I hired two unpaid college interns to work with us. Over the course of the season, they proved to be just as involved and valuable as any of our paid company members. At the end of the summer, we were fortunate enough to have a small surplus and, given the quality of their work, I urged the Board of Trustees to split the money between the two interns. The befuddlement with which my suggestion was met came as no surprise. In the end, I had to defend my reasoning for placing a dollar value on the integral work performed by interns that the company had come to rely on throughout the summer; it became immediately apparent that I was disrupting the rules of unpaid labor in an effort to do the right thing.

This long-held assumption that interns are expected to work without pay — and without guaranteed professional support for next steps — is one that is familiar to many in the arts and culture field. What next practices and strategies can nonprofit arts organizations implement in order to shift the ways we think about internships and support the next generation’s careers in the arts?

Leading the change

Many internships, especially those that offer any form of a small stipend, often require a commitment of 40 hours a week with the expectation of additional night and weekend duties. For interns, who are happy for the opportunity to work at a prestigious organization or simply eager to get a foot in the door, they understand that their work can include a range of experiences — and that they will do it for little to no money.

I have come to realize that the structure of unpaid internships in nonprofit organizations perpetuates a culture of professional haves and have-nots, where only those most financially dexterous can afford to take on such time consuming work without earning a living wage. Often, these unpaid positions are ones that those with limited financial resources must sacrifice; however, these experiences are ones that could be paramount to the start of a career in the arts, where young leaders are expected to “pay their dues.”

Arts and culture organizations of the future must work towards upending the results of this current structure, where many eager and dedicated young people in the field are unable to gain access to what is considered a key stepping stone in an arts career. I believe that organizations must proactively pursue a more inclusive model to represent and acknowledge the true value of an internship experience.

A next practice

Universities offer scholarships for students in need, recognizing the importance of educational opportunities for students from a wide range of backgrounds. An adaptive arts organization could offer similar incentives when recruiting volunteers and interns in programs by thinking about those programs as opportunities for professional development and education. We have nothing to lose as arts leaders by pursuing a more dynamic approach to compensating outstanding interns, whether it is through personal sponsorships by donors or board members, new grants, or prioritizing capital in the budget to not just reward a job well done, but to create a system of support for those in need who are eager to work in the arts.

There are organizations, like McCarter Theatre (in Princeton, NJ), that have the privilege of providing their interns with company housing and a stipend while they pursue the development of their craft at a leading institution. If your organization is not in a position to offer some of the basic essentials, soliciting funding for the purpose of supporting a promising intern with the ability to positively impact your organization would be a dynamic proposal to funders looking to invest in innovative ways outside of programming. For other nonprofit organizations that do not offer housing or stipends, I imagine possibilities for integrating opportunities for scholarship or academic work in the culture of internship programs.

Next practices should include new ways for directly compensating the next generation of interns. But they should also contribute to the development of an organizational attitude that values the diversity those who can contribute to the field, and our tenacious spirit in making the impact we aspire to in the service of our communities.

What are your experiences with internships, as an employer or as an intern? Do you know of organizations doing things differently in their internship programs? Please share in the comments section below.

Kelvin Dinkins, Jr. is a Creative Producer-Artist-Manager currently completing an MFA in Theatre Management & Producing at Columbia University and has a BA in English/Theatre from Princeton University. He has a background in non-profit theatre management and development with an interest in promoting the innovative development of cultural arts institutions and supporting communities that are artistically underserved or in need of a creative renaissance. Kelvin is currently the Communications and Development Manager for The Civilians, the New York-based center for investigative theatre boldly exploring the intersections of theater and society. Follow him on Twitter at @KBD217.

  • Alison K.

    I’m glad internships have been getting so much attention as of late. The arts would be
    crippled without its task force of interns, and it’s a shame that such a crucial source of support is often taken for granted. Although I’m sure most of us individually have a great deal of appreciation for the interns that help keep our organizations humming, the field as a whole needs to take a serious look at the system and realize its implications. In addition to unpaid internships perpetuating a system of privilege in a sector still often viewed as elitist, they also undermine overall advocacy efforts for the field (championing for arts funding on one hand, yet on the other, not making a stronger effort to pay the interns providing that make the arts possible). Thanks for the great article Kelvin – I hope more organizations heed your call to work toward a more inclusive and supportive internship system within the arts!

  • Kat Grilli

    I did an internship at an Equity theatre in Detroit, and was lucky enough to get both housing and a small stipend for the year I was there. That definitely made a difference in the way the staff looked at us and the way we looked at ourselves. We were involved in every aspect of the theatre, from the acting to box office management to the volunteerism that the theatre was committed to, and because we knew how tight the budget was, we knew how long the hours were, we took pride in knowing that we were an important part of keeping the doors open. It makes a difference when people, especially young artists, know that they’re vital, valued, and worth the investment.

  • Disgruntled Teaching Artist

    When I was in undergrad I interned for a LORT B theatre as an Education Intern. I assisted classes in their children’s theatre summer camp and helped direct and produce camp shows. The camaraderie between the interns made the summer for me I learned a great deal about being an educator and it was the start of my journey as a Teaching Artist. We weren’t paid, but it was alright.

    Then halfway through the summer a high school student that used to act in the summer camp came to also “intern” and did basically everything that we did. We found out accidently that he was getting paid to do it, and never received an honest answer as to why he was and we were not. That turned the experience a bit sour, and I lost some respect for that company after that.

  • Kelvin D.
  • Alexandra Siclait

    This article struck a chord with me. This summer I am making a valiant effort to apply to art organizations that see the value in my work at the start of our “relationship.” This is good employee communications.

    Art organizations need interns as much as we need them.

    With that said, Wolf Trap in Virginia has a great internship program. They not only compensate their interns to offset housing and transportation, but also have a really great diversity initiative program. So you know what I am going to do? Apply. I only want to work for an art organization that sees the value in me, my work and multicultural perspective from the start.

    If I am selected, I would love to follow up with you to share my experience.

    • Kelvin D.

      Hi Alexandra!

      Any update?