For the Love of Volunteers and Unpaid Interns

by Sandra Hoyer, former Head Editor, INALJ Washington
preciously published 7/11/13

For the Love of Volunteers and Unpaid Interns

sandra1Volunteers and unpaid interns are one of the greatest resources that businesses, organizations, and federal agencies can have; including libraries. These unpaid warriors are even more critical as institutions face dwindling budgets and shrinking staffs.

One thing I have learned is fostering and creating a fantastic volunteer/ unpaid intern team begins at the source.  I believe that the longevity and steadfastness of volunteers and unpaid interns depends on the interest of their supervisor, or coordinator, in taking them under their wing and really incorporating them into the team. Here are some insights I have gathered from both my past and present volunteering experiences on how to make your volunteers and unpaid interns feel welcome, prepare them for their future professional endeavors, and make them want to stick around:

1) One of the biggest factors for me as a volunteer is often the first day impression. I always particularly notice if my work space is ready, if a profile has been created for me (if I work at a computer), if a list of projects has been formulated before my first day, and overall, if everyone seems prepared for me to be there. Feeling like my arrival was expected, and not a surprise, cues to me as a volunteer that I am truly wanted and needed there. Setting off on a note of preparedness makes me excited to contribute and often affects the length of my stay.

2) Another huge plus: receiving a list of projects or expectations on the first day. This does not need to be set in stone or have to cover any large period of time, but the direction a project list provides is often invaluable. Volunteers and unpaid interns can only do as much as they are given to do. Creating an ongoing list of projects and tasks ensures that a volunteer is never left feeling bored or underutilized.  Project lists also help form expectations and help volunteers and unpaid interns find their place in the workflow. Being part of the organizational workflow goes a long way in helping anyone (staff or not) find their niche and place in a work environment.

3) Include volunteers and unpaid interns in work events, staff meetings, and project discussions. Often times this kind of inclusion allows the volunteer or intern to get a better view of the organizational values and goals. This often times helps work performance since volunteers and interns have a better idea of what needs to be accomplished and what the organization stands for. These kinds of invitations also help volunteers and interns feel included, which goes a long way towards longevity.

4) Your volunteer or intern did something amazing recently? Recognize them! Giving accolades where they are deserved is always a great idea. Often times a volunteer or intern will not see the result or impact of their work due to their hours or short appointment. Letting them know how great their work is, whether over the office newsletter, office meeting, or even through a personal email, goes a very long way towards making interns and volunteers feel like team members. I know that personally, as a volunteer, this type of small gesture has previously made me feel like a million bucks and given my work perspective. This kind of perspective allows me to feel like what I am doing really makes a difference and that I am an asset as a volunteer/intern.

5) If possible, include interns or volunteers in staff trainings or seminars. Being offered professionally enriching opportunities is one of the greatest reasons to volunteer! These kinds of peeks into the professional arena allow interns and volunteers to prepare themselves for their own upcoming careers. This also gives volunteers and interns some direction and insight into new ways to grow or expand their skill set.

I know that not all of these tidbits will apply, or be possible, with all volunteers and unpaid interns. Every situation is unique and will require its own special brand of leadership. I do know that as a volunteer myself, I have been most inspired by those volunteer opportunities that swept me into their daily hustle and bustle and allowed me to develop both personally and professionally.

  7 comments for “For the Love of Volunteers and Unpaid Interns

  1. dan cawley
    October 8, 2014 at 11:19 am

    at one point in time, EVERY staff member of my current (public) library had previously volunteered. one particular individual offered her time and talent three days a week for three years. she is now a full-time, benefited employee.

  2. July 11, 2013 at 10:48 pm

    Today’s success story got her start as a volunteer and that lead to her job as Assistant Librarian at the Guggenheim Museum

  3. Ben W.
    July 11, 2013 at 8:12 pm

    While I agree that volunteers and unpaid interns are a great resource for businesses, organizations and federal agencies, some of the research that I have read suggests that these unpaid positions don’t lead to jobs. The Atlantic recently had an article explaining this point nicely as it applies to college graduates:

    • July 11, 2013 at 8:15 pm

      Thanks for the article link! Definitely a gamble. I know people who it has worked for, though they are more the exception, but when it works … :)

      • Ben W.
        July 12, 2013 at 3:01 pm

        I agree, unpaid positions can lead to paying jobs. My first internship at a community college has led to adjunct positions for several community colleges in that district. I worry sometimes though that many businesses and organizations rely upon interns as replacements for paid workers rather than seeing internships as a way to provide training to the inexperienced. This article seems to suggest as much when it implies that interns are a good solution for ‘dwindling budgets and shrinking staffs’. MLIS students do their community a disservice by taking positions that replace paying jobs.

  4. Jeannine
    July 11, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    I will have to say that, while I received my MLS in May, 2004, I still have to say that my internship in librarianship has been one of (if not the most) the most valuable experiences I had when it came to academic librarianship (and, I dare say, the politics of librarianship). While that was a 4-month internship, my supervisor crammed so much into that brief time (including allowing me to attend meetings and workshops) that I learned a lot more in that brief time than I did in my previous paid full-time position (library assistant 2). What I took away from that is that there’s definitely a difference between Big Brother and oversight and it’s no fun working in a situation where the supervisor is non-existent (she existed on paper but she was never a physical presence within the office; she had the other 2 library assistants as her spies).

    As I look back on my volunteering experience in public libraries, I took away a lot of valuable lessons, especially the impression that I’d rather be in a large metropolitan public library over a public library in a small community or suburb. I’ve also seen the difference in the quality of supervisors, ones who actually supervise vs. those who have someone else do their dirty work for them. I’m really enjoying my volunteer work now and I hope that it will be beneficial to me so I will be able to be employed again by a library. My only hope is that I do not end up in another technocracy like the previous job.

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