In my past few posts, I spoke about your board and about volunteers. This time, I want to look at hosting interns and student research projects. In my experience, students and interns can supercharge your thinking and your organization. I think it is well worth your while investing some time and money in hosting a few interns every year and/or making a student research project possible at your organization.

What can students do

What a student can do depends on the educational goals they set for their internship or research. Everyone involved in your organization, whether they are board members,  volunteers, or ‘regular’ staff, has certain objectives that they want to achieve by working with you. The difference with students and interns is that these set educational goals that must be in line with the curriculum they are following. Their educational institute (school, polytechnic, Uni, etc.) must also approve of these goals. With the goals, usually comes a clear task that must be fulfilled. And an approach for fulfilling it (as well as instructions how to report on it all).

But I am not an educator!

Hosting an intern or a student research project therefore means that you have to commit to training and supporting them in their educational goals. So, no, you are not all of a sudden a professor. But yes, you must invest in helping your students get educated and develop themselves. You (or a dedicated team member) must have some affinity with guiding people in their education, supporting people in a learning process. (In my opinion this is a good way to manage staff, too, but unfortunately this management style is not yet generally practiced even if organizations claim to be learning organizations – but that is for another blog 😉)

Eh, but what are educational goals then?

Educational goals of interns are mostly twofold: firstly, they must research a problem, and then design a solution. Often, they design a prototype, a pilot that can later be developed further and scaled. This kind of goal is very connected to the curriculum they follow, and usually there is a teacher at the educational institute who will guide them on the content and the process. They will make sure your interns or students will read relevant literature and apply a proper research approach. Your role in this type of goal focuses on helping the students gain clarity on the problem and on possible solution areas.

Learning on the job about the job

The second goal of internships often centres around learning how to work and behave in a workplace. What is it like to be at your desk at nine? To spend a whole day in an office? What is it like to have colleagues? To attend meetings? How do people talk at work? What happens if something goes wrong? Etc. etc. Your role in this would be like that of a coach or trainer. You explain the written rules. And you share the unwritten protocols. You give your interns trust and space to take responsibilities and try out things, step by step. And you provide them with constructive feedback every step of the way.

So are they going to solve my problem for me?

Student research projects and interns need a clear focus question. If you formulate your question (problem) clearly and can explain it well, your students may indeed be able to design something that will help you deal with the issue better in future. How far they will get depends mostly on yourself. Can you break up a complex issue in clear questions and problems? Are you able to make clear what the problem is about? What makes it a problem, for instance? For example, one team I worked with received loads of messages every day from the community they served. It was a small team and it could not free enough resources to read and answer all these messages. The problem was not the number of messages received, but the human limitations in handling these messages.


Most educational institutes nowadays teach students to apply design thinking after the more traditional (desk) research phase. In the design phase, students look for possible solution areas to the problem. They will start designing a first step of one possible solution. The design thinking approach focuses on small design steps that you frequently validate with the intended users. This way, a solution is built out of small incremental steps, that build on each other and that each of them have been validated as useful or possible or working by the intended end users.

Applicable outputs?

At the end of the research project or internship you will have three types of outputs: first of all, you will have a research paper with the problem analysis, available literature, case studies, etc. Secondly, you will have a described process of the design of a prototype that you can then further test, implement and scale. And thirdly, your community will have been actively engaged in the process of designing a solution and they are now likely committed to the solution, too.


You can see that the impact of this research process is much deeper than just the reports, presentations and materials you will receive at the end. Your team will have much better understanding of the issue and will be clearer on what the problem is, what causes it and how it might be addressed. Never mind that you may have been talking about the problem before, talking about it with outsiders who have a razor-sharp focus (and none of the distractions you and your team face in the day-to-day tasks) will help you gain a level of clarity you did not know you could have. The same goes for your community.

But more powerfully, your community now knows that you recognize the problem as a problem and are working on addressing it. They feel seen and heard. This increases their commitment to doing what is needed to further test and pilot the prototype or scale it.


Do you think your organization could benefit from a healthy dose of fresh ideas? Are you ready to open your mind to new ideas and a new generation? Then the first step is to brainstorm issues you could use a fresh perspective on. Reach out to an educational institute near you, to see if there is a match between what their students need to learn and develop and your issues. Learn about their curriculum and course planning. Often, research projects and internships are planned to start in January or in September, and last for around three months. See how that can match the timing of your needs.

Nothing should be for free

Think realistically about what you can offer interns or student research groups. Do you have people on your team who have skills and time to guide them? Do you have a bit of money available to experimenting? Can you pay a small internship fee or buy small presents? Do you have some other types of rewards you could make available? Do you have a network you could make available for future job searches, for instance?

No go

Be honest with yourself. If you cannot pay any money but if you can give other rewards that can be totally fine. But if you do not have people on your team who can work with the students, it is a no-go. Get these people in first. Otherwise, you are not delivering value in the partnership with the educational institute and not keeping your part of the deal with the students. This will not only make sure you will not get the impact you desire but it will have a negative impact on your image as professional and reliable nonprofit.

Want to know more and ask questions?

Then join my Facebook group how to become a professional and resilient nonprofit with Suzanne Bakker here. In this group we will create a safe space for open exchange and discussion on potentially sensitive topics like boards, nonprofit management, fundraising, etc.