Is your organisation thinking of using interns?

June coincides with the start of the “summer intern” season for many American and European university students. South Africa is a highly sought after internship destination for these students, having all the romance and mystique of Africa, and (usually) all the conveniences of home. Is your organisation in a position to benefit from this influx of volunteers from across the waters?

Is your organisation thinking of using interns?

Everyone likes the idea of having interns to lighten their load, but managing interns and volunteers can be a mixed bag. They want to help and contribute, but they need to be shown how. And they need to be closely managed, especially when they first arrive.  Be realistic. If you managing more staff will drain your capacity… interns are not for you, at least not now.

On the other hand, interns can be highly productive under the right circumstances. But remember, it’s a reciprocal arrangement. You have to be willing to plan for them before they arrive, and manage them while they are here.


Advantages to hosting foreign university interns:

  • They are relatively skilled, and can easily be slotted into existing programs and workflows.
  • Interns are “free” labour -- in fact, offering them paid positions will create bureaucratic issues on both ends.
  • They are eager and energetic.
  • They offer a fresh influx of new ideas.


Potential disadvantages:

  • Foreign interns can be naïve, and need lots of babysitting.
  • The extra supervision needed can lower the productivity of the regular staff.
  • They could have unrealistically high expectations of doing “important” work.
  • Their stays are short (usually 8 to 12 weeks), so just when they are finally trained and fully productive, it’s time for them to leave.
  • They sometimes think of their stay as a “summer vacation,” and don’t take the work seriously.

BEFORE your interns arrive your they will need:

  • A well-defined job description
  • A discrete, finite project they can complete during their short stay
  • Responsibilities that match their educational training and skillset

These are not just “nice-to-haves.” Most university interns from the US are earning university credit for their experience, or are at least doing a service-learning component of a larger academic program. Making coffee and doing light admin work will not rise to the standard of a university-accredited experience.  Sure, they are interns. It’s okay to ask them to do some grunt work. But that can’t be the reason they came.  Remember that many of them spend in excess of R100 000 to be here (and the ill-mannered ones may tell you so). If they spend that time making photocopies, not only are you endangering their chance to earn credit, the university or agency who sent them to you will be unlikely to send you interns again.


What kinds of projects can interns realistically do?

  • Help plan and execute events or exhibitions.
  • Research or write reports to funders.
  • Create publicity materials.
  • Contribute to social media campaigns.

While that’s hardly an exhaustive list, the idea is to imagine a pile of work that an educated, yet temporary employee can point to when they leave and say, “I did that.” If you are willing to imagine the project (usually it’s something that you’ve talked about doing but never seem to have time for) and offer some direction, supervision and editorial control, you will likely be happy with the result.


How can our organisation attract foreign university interns?

Usually it’s just a matter of getting the word out that you are accepting interns.

  • Post to your webpage and social media.
  • Ask some of your sister organisations where their interns come from.

Usually they would have worked through a Programme Coordinator from the intern’s home institution. Nearly all American universities feature service learning as an essential part of their Study Abroad programmes. As such, they are constantly on the look out for new hosts, and potentially new partners.