Internship vs. volunteering: the importance of using the right terms

What is the difference between internship and volunteering?

It’s an interesting question since the answers are often less obvious that they sound.
Some people say, rightfully so, that sometimes working for free is a manifestation of the will to do good, to advance a cause, to support an organization that otherwise would not be able to continue its activities. I think this is true. In the humanitarian field, a lot of NGOs – not all of them – do not have enough funds to pay for their staff. Blame it on lower private or State donations, on the difficulties associated with fundraising (I know what I am talking about).
To the economist reading, it would seem as if the question is only partially problematic: the unbalance between labor demand and offer in these particular fields is merely the reflection of a field that is too crowded.
But since we are talking about no-profits, the word itself indicates that people who work in it are not or should not be driven by a desire to make money, get rich and buy that nice cottage in the country. True. But even though I would love to see a world with no currency at all, even human rights activist have to pay the rent.

even though I would love to see a world with no currency at all, even human rights activist have to pay the rent.

There is no doubt that volunteering is and should be part of our lives as citizens. We should all take the time to do something positive for our communities, giving some of our spare time for good causes. There are different ways in which volunteering can take place and this is not the object of my post.

A conceptual difference

A volunteer is, according to the dictionary “a person who voluntarily offers himself or herself for a service or undertaking; a person who performs a service willingly and without pay”. If we were to stop here we wouldn’t find much difference with an internship. However, these two activities differ a lot.
Normally, a volunteer is someone who gives some of his/her time to a cause, expecting nothing in return. No money, no professional skills. The activities of a volunteer are, like the term suggests, based on the will of the subject who accepts to provide a service for the sake of its utility to the cause or organization.
In 2001, within the framework of the International Year of Volunteers, the United Nations used a somewhat general definition: “There are three key defining characteristics of volunteering.

First the activity should not be undertaken primarily for financial reward, although the reimbursement of expenses and some token payment may be allowed.

Second, the activity should be undertaken voluntarily, according to an individual’s own free-will, although there are grey areas here too, such as school community service schemes which encourage, and sometimes require, students to get involved in voluntary work and Food for Work programmes, where there is an explicit exchange between community involvement and food assistance.

Third, the activity should be of benefit to someone other than the volunteer, or to society at large, although it is recognised that volunteering brings significant benefit to the volunteer as well.

Within this broad conceptual framework it is possible to identify at least four different types of volunteer activity: mutual aid or self-help; philanthropy or service to others; participation or civic engagement; and advocacy or campaigning. Each of these types occurs in all parts of the world”.

However, the real help comes from national regulations. Even where many countries do not have a commonly accepted definition of a volunteer, there seems to be a common ground on the fact that the key to the specificity in the case of volunteerism lies in the absence of a contract (although some type of Volunteer agreement is possible), that is the absence of a subordinate type of relationship according to which one is expected to carry out specific tasks in exchange for something (not necessarily money). The way in which these principles are interpreted by national courts varies and I am not sure you want me to indulge in the legal details. Of course, it is generally accepted by courts that reimbursement of personal costs due to volunteering do not fall into this category and is permitted.
If one can show that the relationship had indeed a contract character, then she/he would be considered an employee and all the consequences would apply (minimum wage, where applicable, health insurance, etc). In this context, according to the law applying in specific country, the volunteer can seize the court and try to get compensation.

But for normal cases, a volunteer is simply someone who wants to help out, is free to come and go as she/he pleases and is not rewarded with money (with the exception of reimbursements ) nor training in exchange for the tasks carried out.

Most internships would thus not fit in this definition and fall within a different legal category, one that is closer to a work contract.

Generally, volunteering is perceived as something one does only with the purpose of self-fulfillment (something like “help yourself by helping others”).

Blurry frontiers

Volunteering can affect our professional skills in a positive way, even when this is not its first aim.

But where the frontiers between the two get blurry is, as usual, in the practice, where many organizations seem to use the two words interchangeably. This is just an example. To write “become one of our interns or one of our volunteers” is not only wrong – legally speaking – but seems to lead to the idea that one is equal to the other in terms of time and effort involved.
Actually, in these cases, there is no difference between the two anymore.
It follows the logic of the intern doing volunteer work, instead of the intern working and learning in the framework of a specific agreement and more or less strict rules.
I have heard it often. It is also very common to simply identify what interns do as volunteer work. Most of the time it is a mere linguistic shortcut, because unpaid work is in our societies almost always voluntary, otherwise it would be called slavery.

Volunteers can allow your organization to get more done for less money (sometimes substituting for paid staff)”, we can read this in a tips-filled article on Find Law, where I honestly had a hard time making the difference between the volunteer and the intern.

The problem with mixing up the two terms or with using them interchangeably is also connected to the general idea that interns’ work is not “the same” as that of other employees

The problem with mixing up the two terms or with using them interchangeably is also connected to the general idea that interns’ work is not “the same” as that of other employees, that they are there (indeed) to learn, thus they are “voluntarily” committing themselves to carrying out some tasks with the perspective of a improving their skills.
It fits within the idea (right, wrong? who knows) that young people have to work their way up by starting off as humble as possible, even accepting to work, “voluntarily”, for free, because “that’s necessary”. But where a volunteer in its true meaning is not investing himself for anything other than a cause and is not submitted or subordinate, an intern is often used as mere cheap labor, often disguised as a volunteer.

I happen to think that the way we name things and actions around us is extremely important. And mixing up interns and volunteers merely serves to reinforce the cliché that young people’s skills are not worth a pay. Like Guardian’s journalist Mark Lawson rightfully pointed out “A state that reclassifes salary as charity is simply disguising its failures”.
You can easily substitute “state” with “firm”, “organization”, and so on.

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See the exhibition

Berlin: Go to exhibition’s archive

March 5th to 26th, ACUD Galerie, Veteranenstraße 21 (see ACUD press release). Tuesday to Sunday, 2 to 8 pm.
The exhibition in Berlin is over – thanks to everybody for coming!

Hamburg: Go to exhibition’s archive

April, University of Hamburg – April 16th to 30th, University of Hamburg, Foyer des Unigebäudes VMP8, Fakultät für Erziehungswissenschaft Von-Melle-Park 8. Mondays to Fridays from 7 am to 9.30 pm and on Saturdays from 7 am to 4 pm. The building is closed on Sundays. See the exhbition post and the CampusGrün announcement for more information. The exhibition in Hamburg is over – thanks to everybody for coming!

Naples: Go to exhibition’s archive

May 10th to 31st, Archeologiattiva, via Duomo 228, Napoli.
Mondays to Saturdays, from 10 am to 20 pm.
Vernissage on the 10th of May with readings on the topic of internships by Raffaella R. Ferré, author of “Santa Precaria”. More about the exhibition.
The exhibition in Naples is over – thanks to everybody for coming!

Geneva: Go to exhibition’s archive

June 12th to 18th, University of Geneva, Uni Mail Bd du Pont-d’Arve 40, 1205 Genève; Horaires: lundi au vendredi : 7h30 – 23h; samedi : 7h30 – 17h30; dimanche : fermé. The exhibition is over! Thank you all for coming.


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  1. […] a statement on how internship is too often mingled with volunteering (and that, as you know, is very wrong). Coming from the NGO world as I do, I was also naturally interested in the rest of the event, […]

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