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Avoiding the Black Swan: Part III

This is the third installment of a three part series on the history, the legality, and the uncertain future of unpaid internship in the arts and culture sector...

We’ve discussed the history of the internship, some ethical questions around unpaid internships, and a legal framework for paid and unpaid internships. I think most of us in the culture sector would like to pay our interns for their labor, but the reality is that many organizations simply cannot afford the extra expense. However, there are a number of resources for small not-for-profit groups lacking the sufficient financial means to offer paid internships. I interviewed two internship programs based in New York City: one organization with limited resources and unable to pay their interns directly, and one organization with established funding for an internship program.

Case Studies:

The Possibility ProjectThe Possibility Project

Internships: approx. 5 internships per year, high school and college students

The Possibility Project is a not-for-profit organization in New York City that uses the performing arts to empower teenagers to transform the negative forces in their lives into positive action. The organization hosts several interns throughout the year from both high school and colleges. The Project does not pay its interns, but fosters an educational experience for their students while also seeking out third-party resources to fund their interns’ stipends.

Kelly Claus

I spoke to The Project’s Director of Operations Kelly Claus about what resources are available to not-for-profit organizations who may not be able to afford to pay interns, but still want to provide conscientious and positive opportunities for students. The Possibility Project recruits interns through two programs in New York City: Futures and Options, which works primarily with high school students, and Columbia University Communities in Action Internship Program. Claus stressed that proper preparation on the part of supervisors is critical to the success of the internship. Claus creates what she calls a “digital trunk” of detailed instructions and training materials to help interns transition into the workplace. The Possibility Project has trained over 30 interns since 2008.

Kelly’s Tips:

  • Provide a thorough orientation - Sit down on day one and walk through your expectations of them, what they should expect in terms of culture of the organization, and how you'd like them to communicate with you. That first impression sets the tone for their internship and can save you a lot of grief in the long run.

  • Make it part of your day - Don’t view supervising an intern as an extra component of your time. Budget time into your day to prep documents, instructions, and curriculum for interns. If you don't have the time to spend on this, it's best not to take on an intern at all.

  • Make sure an intern’s interests match their responsibilities - Kelly has made it a point to only accept interns who demonstrate an interest in arts management or administration. She’s turned down many a prospective intern because she felt that their interests were primarily artistic, and they would have not been motivated by the kind of work the internship would entail. It can be hard to say no, but a bad match means nobody wins.

Arts and Business Council of New York

Internships: 10-13 internships per year, college students only

The Arts and Business Council of New York (ABC/NY) is a program of Americans for the Arts and is committed to developing creative partnerships between the arts and business communities in New York, enhancing the business skills of the arts sector and creative engagement of the business sector. One of ABC/NY’s many programs is their Multicultural Arts Management Internship program, which was created to promote diversity the arts management field, contribute to the infrastructure of arts organizations by providing project-specific staff, engage the corporate community in the arts, and provide the next generation of arts professionals with solid business skills and the next generation of business professionals with a lifelong commitment to the arts.

Stephanie Dockery

I spoke to Program Coordinator Stephanie Dockery, who manages the internship program at the Arts and Business Council of New York. The program recruits undergraduate students with multicultural backgrounds from around the nation and pairs them with a not-for-profit arts organization in New York City for a ten-week, full-time, paid internship. Most of the selected interns are already engaged in the arts in various capacities and are interested in learning to transfer their creative passions to a career in arts management. Interns are also paired with a mentor from a for-profit company who has an interest in the arts. Mentors meet with their interns at least once a week to offer advice, answer questions, and help build professional networks. Each intern hosts a site visit to his or her arts organization for the full cohort; eleven site visits in a ten-week period provide a comprehensive overview of NYC’s nonprofit arts ecosystem. The program also provides additional professional development opportunities and group outings to various cultural events in the city,

Stephanie’s Tips:

  • Invest in your intern - Much in the same way that audiences value a paid ticket more than a free ticket, even if the content is the same, participating organizations may value an intern in whom they have literally invested more than one who is unpaid. ABC/NY requires participating organizations to contribute a substantial amount to the internship stipend . They are also required to provide program interns with high-level tasks and projects to provide a meaningful work experience.

  • Check and Double Check - When running an internship program in which students are placed in offices outside of your organization, it is very important to ensure that interns are being placed in quality work environments. Before bringing on new participating organizations, Stephanie puts them through a thorough screening process consisting of interviews with senior staff and site visits. All participating organizations and individuals are required to complete midterm and final evaluations, and regular conversations with participants at program events allow Stephanie to stay up to date on any issues or concerns. Multiple checkpoints mean a more finely tuned program.