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Non scholae sed vitae 2: The profit in non-profit

Last semester, I mentioned how I’d been exploring the implications and applications of my education to the real world through community-based learning and engaged pedagogy. Moving forward, my goals are to expand my thinking about university teaching and research on one hand, and to think about non-tenure jobs both within and without a university setting on the other. Alt-ac in its truest sense, if you will: exploring alternatives to the traditional tenure-track, whether they be in an academic setting or not. Another prong of this self-crafted program of exploration has been interning for a non-profit. Here, a word on terminology: I was looking for, and this post is about, internships as opposed to volunteering. The difference, as I see it, is in learning and commitment. An internship is a two-way street where the intern benefits by gaining significant experiences and skills, and one where the intern does sustained work for the non-profit.

So why a non-profit? I had both good and bad reasons for this. The bad ones were: 1) Maybe a non-profit would be desperate enough to take me, for free now and for pay later, and 2) I didn’t know where else to look. More on #2 in my next installment. As for #1, turns out they will interview you just like any corporation would, and as Anne Krook pointed out during a recent career event at U-M, non-profits actually have to be more picky than corporations because of their limited budgets. My good reasons were wanting to familiarize myself with the non-profit world because it seemed like a good fit for me professionally, and wanting to put in some hours for a good cause.

A semester in, I can say I got tremendously lucky. In case you don’t want to rely on blind luck when choosing a non-profit to intern with, here are some lessons I’ve learned.

Be careful about your choice. Unless you really don’t care what you do and what you accomplish through your work, sniff out the organization. Most of the opportunities on websites like are just that: volunteering, usually for a few hours without much structure. A lot of organizations, especially smaller ones, are so overworked that they can’t expend much energy on holding your hand or even making a plan to make the most of your help. I volunteer for one such organization in addition to my internship. I find the work rewarding because of the cause, but I am a warm body more than anything, both in terms of what I learn and what impact I have. If you have contacts, ask around; if not, e-mail people and look through websites. Visit the office and meet your potential coworkers before committing. In the sea of volunteering opportunities, I found two decently structured non-profit internships in Ann Arbor, including the one I am currently doing.

Make a plan. Discuss in some detail, and preferably jot down in writing, what you will be doing and what both you and the non-profit hope to get out of the bargain. It can be tempting to only talk about how passionately you want to help the cause, but that way resentment and stagnation lies. In my interview, I had to admit that I have no strong personal connection to the cause, but that I was willing to put all my skills to use and I wanted to learn new skills as well. My boss was clearly genuinely interested in what I wanted to get out of the experience and having me help in meaningful ways, and that’s why my experience has been so rewarding.

Commit. To be honest, I committed to ten hours a week for a year because I felt too embarrassed to ask to only work a few hours a week. In hindsight, I am very glad I did. It is a big time commitment, especially when it’s squeezed in between dissertation and coursework, but it has allowed me to actually integrate into the organization. People know to expect me every Wednesday. I talk during conference call round robins. I have my own organization e-mail address. I work on both short- and long-term projects for my boss and for others who come up with a task and then think of me. I also receive training and mentoring from my boss. None of this would be as likely to happen if I put in an hour now and then. Yes, the hours are hours not spent on my dissertation, but I’ve decided that the career development is worth it.

Network. This is the part of the puzzle I am pointedly bad at and one I need to work on still. The best I can say, then, is: don’t be like me. Non-profit circles are small, and people in them tend to be giving and gracious by definition. So get schmoozing!


Feel free to share your leads in the comments!


Important lesson in fundraising. Image credit: