Camille Schenkkan is a theatre management professional and educator, passionate about career development for artists & arts managers.

Archive for August, 2013

LeanIn.org Unpaid Interns Controversy: Interns are not Volunteers

Several people have asked for my thoughts on the LeanIn.org unpaid internship controversy.  I love Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, a compelling look at ambitious women in the workforce and the factors that have traditionally kept us out of the highest-paid and most senior-level positions.

I also run the internship program at the nonprofit Center Theatre Group, where all of our internships must be taken for credit or are compensated with a stipend.

Here’s what Rachel Thomas, LeanIn.org’s President, had to say via Facebook after a job posting for an ‘unpaid internship’ at the organization started making the rounds:

Like many nonprofits, LeanIn.Org has attracted volunteers who are passionate about our mission. We’ve had four students ask to volunteer with us. They worked flexibly when they could, and often remotely.

These volunteers helped support our message and community, and gained valuable experience doing so. They did not displace or delay the hiring of paid employees. The posting that prompted this discussion was for a position that doesn’t fall within LeanIn.Org’s definition of a “volunteer.”

This non-apology is so strangely written that it’s hard for me to know where to start.

Here’s the main thing I take from it, and it’s actually pretty disturbing:

LeanIn.org is using ‘intern’ and ‘volunteer’ interchangeably.  Thomas, speaking on behalf of her organization, is confusing two distinct categories.

This comes immediately after this patronizing intro:

“We recognize there is an ongoing public debate on the appropriate use of unpaid interns. So we want to share the facts with you and our community.” 

This word, “fact?”  And “intern?”  And “volunteer?”

You keep using these words.

I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

Ms. Thomas, nonprofit volunteers do not need to “gain valuable experience,” and they can and often do “displace or delay hiring of employees.”

That language refers to the Fair Labor Standards Act’s (FLSA’s) criteria for internships. 

Here are some basic differences between the two categories:

  • Internships are training programs, and the “training must be for the benefit of the trainee,” to quote the FLSA. In fact, “The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the trainees, and on occasion the employer’s operations may actually be impeded.”  Read: they are not cheap or free labor.
  • Internship learning experiences must include close observation (mentorship), so working remotely is not a good indication that you have provided a rewarding internship experience.
  • Volunteers, conversely, usually do work that directly benefits the nonprofit.  They do not need to be mentored, do not need to be trained, and can be utilized in lieu of paid, regular employees.

There are many blog posts and web resources that go into the differences between volunteers and interns at length.  For example, this excellent Blue Avocado article spells out additional best practices and quotes relevant parts of the FLSA.

In a nonprofit setting, it can be difficult to ensure internships are crafted to not only fulfill legal requirements, but also to serve the best interests of each intern.

Much of my job running CTG’s internship program involves saying no.  I say no to supervisors who want their interns to work “as much as possible,” and to interns who are so happy to be involved that they try to expand their 10 hour/week stipend position into 20 or 30 hours.

Here’s what I say to them:

The internship is for the benefit of the intern.  It is a learning experience, not free labor.  If your department needs help with basic tasks such as stuffing envelopes, filing, or data entry, I empathize and suggest you think about getting a regular volunteer to help.

Because volunteers are different. Outside of CTG, I am on the staff of an all-volunteer small theatre company, Circle X Theatre Co.  As a volunteer, I can do whatever I want, and whatever is needed, for as many hours a week as I care to give.  I clean bathrooms.  I stuff envelopes.  I do hours of data entry.  It’s my choice as a volunteer, and I’m doing it to help the nonprofit organization, not for a learning or career benefit.  Right now, Circle X has a (paid) summer intern, and she will not be cleaning toilets.  The internship.  Is for the benefit.  Of the intern.

And to the interns: this is bigger than you, so no, I will not make an exception and let you work full-time.  Up until a few years ago, CTG almost exclusively took interns from a large, local private university with very high tuition.  As the program has opened up, we’re starting to see more people from public schools, including the two-year community colleges near our organization.  The reason our positions are designed to be super part-time (10 to 16 hours a week for undergraduates, with the schedule built around the intern’s) is the stipend amounts we have available are quite low ($500 – $700 for ten weeks).  They’re designed to allow a student to also hold a part-time job that pays the bills.

I do not want lack of economic privilege to be a barrier to participation in this workforce development program.  When we raise the stipends for these time-bound educational opportunities to a living wage, we can increase weekly hours.  Programs such as the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s FAIR pay interns $1,000/month and provide housing.  When CTG is able to do that, we will absolutely create additional opportunities, likely full-time, 10-week summer internships.

I don’t foresee a time when we would extend those opportunities beyond 13 or 14 weeks, though; the point of an internship is to train & release, allowing the intern to ‘lean in’ to the next career opportunity.

The more I think about LeanIn.org’s posting and strange response, the more it seems indicative of the widespread misunderstanding of the role of interns in the nonprofit sector.  We have a pressing need for workforce development, especially career training opportunities accessible to young people of color (research suggests that executive nonprofit leaders AND current students in nonprofit management Masters programs are 80-90% white) and people without economic privilege.

Unpaid internships and the increasing number of low-paying nonprofit management jobs that require Masters degrees can price people out of nonprofit management careers.  Humane, student-focused, and compensated internships introduce emerging professionals to the field and can provide a leg up in the competitive nonprofit landscape.

Lean In talks about the importance of equity– and of recognizing when systems are inherently inequitable.  The best thing for Thomas, Sandberg and the LeanIn.org organization to do would be to use this opportunity to clarify the roles of interns vs. volunteers, apologize, and vow to do better.

Unfortunately, it looks like they’re trying to justify their bias by manipulating language, defending their actions, and refusing to admit fault.

Which sounds a lot like the tactics that keep women out of top-level, high-paying positions.

I’ll end with some quotations from Lean In:

“We cannot change what we are not aware of, and once we are aware, we cannot help but change.”

“The promise of equality is not the same as true equality.”

“Larry implored us to exert more control over our careers. He said McKinsey would never stop making demands on our time, so it was up to us to decide what we were willing to do. It was our responsibility to draw the line.”

“I feel really grateful to the people who encouraged me and helped me develop. Nobody can succeed on their own.”

Here’s hoping Sandberg will take her advice, and provide equal and accessible opportunities for training and mentorship within her own organization.

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No One is Going to Kickstart Your Career (Except You)

Ashton Kutcher’s 2013 Teen Choice Awards acceptance speech is making the rounds on Facebook, and for good reason: Kutcher takes the opportunity to talk about the value of hard work, creating your own opportunities, and acknowledging your power to shape your life.

It made me think about my experiences working with teens and young adults.  I love it.  I love them.  They make me proud and give me hope that the future will be better than the present.

But there’s one thing that makes me cringe: their tendency to ask other people to help pay for what they want to do.

This is especially prevalent among theatre and arts students, as summer programs, arts schools, and classes can be extremely expensive.  I remember feeling that combination of excitement (I got into this amazing program!) and dread (how the heck am I going to pay for this?).  Had Kickstarter or IndieGoGo existed when I was a teenager, I would have jumped on the bandwagon and asked friends and family to help pay for my education, my travel, even my move to LA after graduation.

I am so glad these options didn’t exist.

Now, a lot more has changed since the early 2000s than the availability of online fundraising platforms.  The economy has tanked while the cost of education continues to rise.  In the arts and arts management fields, having a Masters degree has become more and more of a necessity for many jobs.  I would argue it’s more difficult to be a young adult in 2013 than it was in 2002.

That said, here’s what always comes to mind when I see these Kickstarter requests.  First, I picture myself at 17 or 18, big with the sense of my own talent and intelligence.  And I think:

There is only one person in the world in charge of your success.

Your parents do not owe you anything, nor do your relatives (even if they have money).

Your friends love you, but they do not need to help pay for your cat’s surgery, for your trip to Europe, or for the summer arts program that will change your life.  And it will change your life.  Your life.

See, the difference between a charity asking for money to bring joy or reduce pain, or an artist asking for money to create an art product that will be enjoyed by others, is that your ask is fundamentally about you: your growth and development as a person, an artist, a citizen.

Asking for people to fund your life makes you a product.  It crowd-funds you away from the driver’s seat.

If you are waiting for other people to make your dreams come true, doesn’t that feel just a little scary?  It takes away the certainty– I will succeed, no matter what– and adds a conditional– I will succeed, if other people come through and help me do so.

It also– and here I’m really speaking to 17-year-old-me– presumes that you are worthy of being funded, just for being you.

Millennials already have to fight against our “Trophy Generation” perception and older generations’ complaints about our overdeveloped sense of entitlement.  Just Google “millennial entitlement” or “Trophy Generation” and you’ll see litany after get-off-my-lawn litany about people born in the past 30 years.

You are entitled to a damn good life and a successful career.  You get those things by believing in yourself and fighting for them.  Even if you do get people to pay for your education, your travel, your unexpected expenses, eventually those opportunities will fall away and you will be standing alone on the merits of your accomplishments.  If your college resume shows no work experience or volunteer service, every accolade in the world won’t get you a job.

Before you set up that Kickstarter, ask:

1. Am I doing everything in my power to make this opportunity happen? I see many students fundraising for opportunities while also posting about how boring their summer is.  Are you working?  First jobs suck.  Second jobs suck.  But they can make a little money, and show you’re serious about getting what you want.  This summer, I saw nearly a dozen young people post Kickstarters.  I saw one person post about needing a job to raise money for college.  Guess which person I helped?  Also: guess which one was most successful?  That student is on his way to an excellent school, with two flexible jobs, and will not need to take out loans for his first year.

2. Does this experience benefit others, or only me?  If you’re creating art, doing volunteer work or community service, or generally helping others, please ask your network to support you.  If the experience solely benefits you, see #1.  If you are doing everything you can and are trying to close the gap, make that clear.

PS: You, as a person, are not art.  Even if you’re planning to write about your trip or become a better actor through the experience, solely being you is not a reason for people to pay for you to do so.  I don’t care how talented you are. Here’s the beautiful and terrible part about being an artist: someone is always better at it than you are.  If they’re working harder, you’re fucked.

So work harder, be kinder, embrace humility, and know that the power to be successful is in your– and only your– hands.

And paradoxically, that’s when people will go out of their way to help you succeed.