Practicums and paid internships with charitable organizations provide great opportunities for students to develop strong leadership skills while forging positive connections in the community. As an added bonus, practicum students can feel good about what they're doing while earning a respectable income.

Organizations of all shapes and sizes, big or small, for-profit or not-for-profit, are starting to recognize the value in offering paid internships to college students. When an intership is offered in partnership with a college or university, students can get paid on-the-job training for a full semester. On top of that,  practicum students can count their paid work as credit for their class. Imagine that! Students can get paid to learn!

Organizations that offer practicum programs in partnership with colleges and universities benefit in several ways:

  • The recruitment process is streamlined. Practicum coordinators do plenty of pre-screening before sending applicants to be interviewed by the participating employer.
  • Employers get to pick from the best of the best. Most college students eligible for their school's field study and internship programs must have a high grade point average before being allowed into the program.

Many non-profit organizations are eligible for government grants to hire summer students, so don't discount the possibility of finding valuable paid work in the non-profit sector. By securing a paid internship or practicum, you'll earn a decent wage over the summer and get hands-on experience in one of the largest employment sectors in America. (A 2009 report published by the Congressional Research Service says that 7% of the American workforce works in the charitable sector, while another 10% of the workforce is employed in the non-profit sector.)

Applying for a Job with a Local Charity

One of the myths about applying for work in the non-profit sector is that getting a job will be as easy as showing up and presenting your résumé. But charitable organizations have tight budgets to work with and if they're going to invest time and money hiring a student, they're looking for the best and the brightest. The truth is that non-profits often receive hundreds of applications for one single job posting. If you want to get your foot in the door for an interview, here are some things you should know:

  • Previous volunteer experience is highly desirable. Put any community work, volunteer service, awards and accolades you've received right up front on your résumé.
  • State your learning objectives clearly. If you're participating in a practicum for school credit, make sure that you identify the key things you need to learn during your practicum. This helps the organization assess whether they can give you the training and hands-on experience you're looking for.

Standing Out During the Interview Process

Having interviewed hundreds of summer students for charitable organizations over the years, I can assure you that paying attention to small details will be noticed by your interviewer.

  • Practice your interview skills. Read as much as you can about the organization ahead of time: What is their mission? Who do they serve? What are their most recent major accomplishments?
  • Show up on time. With Google maps and its new "street view" feature, there is no excuse for getting lost on the way to the interview.
  • Dress professionally and appropriately. Applying for a job with a grassroots organization doesn't mean you can go casual. Dress to impress.
  • Offer a firm handshake and a confidant greeting. If there is more than one person in the interview, make sure you address everyone equally. Don't assume that you know who will be making the final hiring decision.
  • Bring all the right paperwork. Have extra copies of your resume available. If you have one, bring a "brag book" or portfolio to visually showcase your accomplishments. If you have reference letters you're particularly proud of, bring extra copies to leave with your interviewer. These letters may tip the scale in your favor during candidate selection.
  •  After the interview, send a thank you note right away. These days a well-worded thank you letter by email is an acceptable and expedient way to show your appreciation for an interview. If you can send the thank you note before the end of the day, you can position yourself to be top-of-mind during candidate deliberations.

Getting the Most Out of Your Practicum Placement

If you make it past the interview process and do get offered a job, keep up the level of professionalism you showed during the recruitment and interview process.

  • Be curious and interested in what others do. Within the first week of your employment, make a point of meeting with each staff person individually. Ask if you can interview them about what they do and what they love most about their job. The best way to learn how a non-profit runs is by getting to know the people who do the work, whether they're on the front line or behind the scenes in bookkeeping.
  • Observe how other staff follow the office's dress code policy. Then, dress just a notch above the best dressed person on staff. You don't want to be overdressed, nor do you want to be too casual.
  • Bring a bag lunch to work as often as you can. One of the best parts of working for a non-profit organization is the diverse, hard-working people you'll meet. Lunch breaks are usually a half-hour long, so having a bag lunch on hand gives you more time to socialize with your new co-workers. If you have to run down the street to pick up a sandwich, you'll miss some great casual networking opportunities around the lunch table.
  • If you are invited to participate in staff meetings, then do so. Ask questions. Be curious. Contribute to thoughtful discussions. Don't underestimate what you have to offer.
  • Participate in off-site events and outreach activities if you can. While some events put on by your organization may be outside your paid office hours, ask if you can volunteer to help out in any way. Again, you'll get a chance to network with your co-workers and meet staff from other organizations.

Working for a worthy charitable organization, even for a short period of time, can give you transferable skills that are highly sought after in both the corporate and charitable sectors. From marketing and fundraising to public speaking and outreach, the effort you put in will come back to you ten-fold in the years to come.