Everyone wants in on this CVA’s intern program

How does your organization feel about interns?  Are they an occasional asset, when there is a specific project to tackle? A necessity – but one that is reluctantly taken on by program staff?

Or, are interns so much a part of your nonprofit’s culture that departments don’t just accept interns – they ask for them and treat them as essential for running an effective program.

If your nonprofit resembles this last description, then you have a lot in common with Sue Hawthorne, CVA.

Sue is the Volunteer Manager of Sweetser a nonprofit that provides mental health, recovery, and education services to children and adults in 75 locations throughout Maine.

A key part of Sue’s role is to recruit and place interns throughout the organization.  In fact, Sue just placed her 18th intern for this semester alone, with another soon to be matched to a program.

The Philosophy Around Interns

But interns aren’t just “accepted” at Sweetser – they are welcomed, trained, nurtured, and considered likely candidates for future employment.

The numbers explain why. “Statistics show that an intern who is hired by the same company is likely to remain with that workplace for at least five years,” Sue observes.

Sue Hawthorne, CVA, has expanded her intern program by 38% in just three years – and it’s still growing

“Our intern program is an important piece of the hiring process. Right now, about 33% of our interns are hired as full-time employees. The ones who are hired prove their skills and understanding of company culture. We know they are likely to stay – that’s what were’ looking for.”

The focus on preparing interns for possible future employment means that the intern experience is a two-way street: interns must demonstrate commitment and competency and in return, the supervisors must provide what Sue calls a “valid volunteer experience.”

In other words, interns are not permitted to make copies or fetch coffee – they are expected to shadow a supervisor and learn a tangible new skill by the end of their internship period.

“I know someone whose daughter received a high-status internship at another organization. The girl ended up just doing data entry. That wouldn’t happen at Sweetser.”

Here are some examples of typical projects –

  • The interns at Sweetser’s farm-based experiential learning program teach children with behavioral health issues how to make maple syrup, muck out a horse stall, or harvest vegetables.
  • Interns in the school-based program who do direct counseling of children. Almost all of the schools in Saco (Sweetser’s headquarters) have masters-level interns provided by the organization.
  • Interns who conduct crisis work when children first enter the program. “That’s when they learn if this field is for them or not.”

Some of the interns work for Sue herself.  Most recently, an intern created a training needs assessment. By visiting an conducting interviews with non-clinical staff throughout the organization, the intern helped determine which staff needed. “My intern also helped staff feel validated and listened to when the trainings began to happen,” adds Sue.

A Few Best Practices

Over the years, Sue has developed a seamless onboarding process that helps her identify the candidates most likely to succeed as interns at Sweetser.  Here are some of the essentials:

  • An initial response that spells it all out. Every student who inquires about an internship receives a standardized message that walks them through the internship process and spells out all of the expectations. All new interns must complete a full-day orientation. Depending upon their assigned role, many will also attend a second three-day client records training.
  • A thorough application process. Students who wish to intern must complete an extensive application form and submit three full recommendations. A resume is strongly encouraged. Anyone who omits the full application or supporting documentation is turned away.
  • A conversational interview process. The supervisors conduct the interview with promising candidates. “I encourage the supervisors to drop the yes/no questions and instead ask meaningful questions that encourage conversation, such as “what appeals to you about my program?” or “tell me more about yourself.”
  •  A final evaluation. Surveys are sent to the supervisors and interns to determine the success of the internship. The survey results are used as a learning tool for future intern placements.

Sue’s internship program is growing. Placements are up 38% from just three years ago – and that’s no coincidence.

Getting Strategic

“Sweetser is a certified Service Enterprise organization. The engagement of interns and other types of volunteers is a part of our strategic plan – and no one wants to see the Strategic Plan fail.”

“There is so much more accountability because we all have to make that happen. My volunteer program matters because we’re in it together.”

Sue’s experience is a great example of what happens when volunteer engagement is recognized at the highest strategic level. With top-down inclusion, our value is not questioned and we receive the buy-in we need.  We are positioned for success.

For many of us, that means the path to greater acceptance means thinking bigger, and claiming strategic inclusion as our ultimate goal. Who’s up for the challenge?


Need more buy-in to build our intern program? My Six Principles of Buy-In will boost your workplace influencing skills.  Email me for the handout and worksheet.  – Elisa