Internships in Jewish Organizations

Providing interns with a meaningful learning experience and allowing them to make a contribution to the agency’s efforts to serve the community is one of the challenges facing Jewish nonprofit organizations. Whether we are discussing a Jewish community center, a Jewish family service agency, the Jewish Federation, a home for the aged or one of other many communal organizations, internships are a way to interest people in pursuing a career in the Jewish community. It is also one of the key components in educational programs preparing people who want to work in Jewish communal service.

The first step is the agency’s commitment to provide the intern with a serious learning experience. It is not unusual for staff members of a nonprofit to think about all the work that has to be completed and someone will often say, “Let’s get an intern to do it.” This is not a successful approach either for the organization or the intern. Interns should not be viewed as free labor or people who are just filling in for others who are either on maternity/paternity leave, vacation, or on leave due to a family situation.

It is always great to have people help out and assist with administrative support functions or in the delivery of services to members and clients. However, interns require an investment of time and energy on behalf of the professionals and administrative staff of the organization.

The intern’s role must be clearly defined

Once the agency is prepared to develop an educational experience for the intern then the next step is creating a job description that reflects exactly what the person will be doing. This must incorporate both the intern’s professional responsibilities as well as the learning opportunities available to the intern. The document not only gives direction to the intern but also becomes the basis for evaluating the person’s performance. It should also identify the supervisor who will be working with and enabling the intern to gain the most from the experience.

After clarifying the intern’s responsibilities and tasks the next step is to prepare a written letter of agreement between the intern and the supervisor. The letter of agreement (or contract) clarifies the nature of the relationship for both the intern and the organization. Although it is not a formal legal document it provides a framework for clarifying the intern’s role in the organization.

The intern should be assigned a supervisor – an experienced professional – who occupies a critical role in the quality of the intern’s experience in the nonprofit organization. The relationship begins with the process of interviewing the potential intern. Part of the agreement to accept an intern is the providing of ongoing supervisory meetings. These meetings focus on defining the intern’s specific assignments, providing a place for the intern to share feelings and responses to the experience, establishing an educational atmosphere that allows the intern to learn from their experiences, and continuing a process of evaluating the intern’s performance.

In addition to providing guidance and assisting the intern in learning from the work of the agency, the supervisor is also there to ensure the work is meaningful. If we return to the staff member who says, “Let the intern do it” then we can quickly envision the intern could become responsible for tasks unrelated to the defined assignments. The intern has to be able to turn to the supervisor when there is a feeling that the agency staff does not full understand the position of the intern in the organization.

When an internship includes the above steps it has the potential to be both successful and satisfying for both the intern and the nonprofit. Of course there are differences between internships that are part of a formal educational program and those that are developed by the agencies to interest people in working in the nonprofit sector. When there is an educational institution of higher learning that is involved then the “agreement” is not only between the organization and the intern, but also involves the requirements of the university to ensure the educational objectives are met in the actual work in the field.

Thus, internships are a wonderful opportunity for people to learn about the work of nonprofit Jewish communal organizations and to decide whether they want to work as a professional in the Jewish community. In order for the internship experience to be successful it must be built on a foundation that provides a meaningful learning experience.

Stephen G. Donshik, D.S.W., is a lecturer at Hebrew University’s International Nonprofit Management and Leadership Program and has a consulting firm focused on strengthening nonprofit organizations and their leadership for tomorrow. Stephen is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy.