What are obligations/responsibilities a volunteer/non-profit organization desiring to have an unpaid internship position should consider?

Note: this pdf from the department of labor discusses what seem to be the legal obligations behind having a non-paying internship for a for-profit company - presumably non-profits are similar (I could not find documentation specific to non-profits).

The following six criteria must be applied when making this determination:

  1. The internship, even though it includes actual operation of the facilities of the employer, is similar to training which would be given in an educational environment
  2. The internship experience is for the benefit of the intern
  3. The intern does not displace regular employees, but works under close supervision of existing staff
  4. The employer that provides the training derives no immediate advantage from the activities of the intern; and on occasion its operations may actually be impeded;
  5. The intern is not necessarily entitled to a job at the conclusion of the internship; and
  6. The employer and the intern understand that the intern is not entitled to wages for the time spent in the internship.

3 Answers 3


A volunteer organization has no worries, as it is "volunteer," thus it is implied and indicated in the type of organization it is that the positions are not paid. Volunteer firefighters are a prime example. They do not receive pay, as they volunteer their time and services.

A non-profit follows the same rules as a for-profit, the only difference between those organizations is how the net income is distributed. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonprofit_organization

  • 1
    An internship is different than a volunteering though you are correct the same rules apply for unpaid interns Commented Sep 5, 2012 at 17:24
  • good point, i realized that just a second ago when i re-read my answer.
    – squeemish
    Commented Sep 5, 2012 at 17:25

I assume you are talking strictly legal concerns? Or are you also pondering the logistical?

Legally, I believe the big deal (at least US legislation-wise) is that an intern not be in a position of being unpaid for doing the same work that a paid employee would be doing. And I suspect that you would have a similar problem whether your organization was for-profit or non-profit - if you have a paid employee doing the same thing as the intern, then the intern had better be spending so much time learning from the employee, that his actual work contribution is minimal in light of the cost of training him.

The trick is, I believe that in practice it's fair to say that many non-profits get a vast amount of free help that would be paid contracts or employees in a regular for-profit business - for example, lawyers, tech supoprt, fundraisers, marketing, promo and other skilled laborers may volunteer for a good cause while demanding pay at a for-profit. I would hazard a (non-legal) guess that there is a way that a non-profit can accept donations of time in these cases.

The thing is, I believe the test is that an intern should be "paying his dues" in order to receive a paid position - "getting training" vs. "paying dues" can be a very hairy issue. I know of plenty of non-profit organizations that tred a lot closer to the danger zone on these areas than for-profits.


As an intern, you could expect to share the work of paid employees of the organization. If you volunteer it's not the same. So in this situation the organization is an employer like a normal company.

But the principal difference with volunteering is that an internship is a training. You give your work and they reward by giving you a practical training. That is why you need (theoretically) to be a student or a young graduate.

You can't expect wages, but you can ask for compensation or indemnities (eg for travel costs).

In Europe this is no problem as there are a lot of 'fake' universities which offer to sign internship conventions with companies. It might be the same in the US. I remember some european friends having had some problems in the US because they had to get a student visa for unpaid internships.

  • actually an unpaid intern cannot just do the work of paid employees - it has to be mostly training Commented Feb 19, 2018 at 18:29

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