The Difference Between Being A Volunteer And An Intern & Why It Matters

There are many young people who need to get a foot on the job ladder, but the problem is that the current economic climate breeds an abundance of qualified graduates, yet a limited number of graduate vacancies.

According to the International Volunteer Directory, the difference between an internship and volunteering is the following: “An internship is something that you choose to do in order to develop your skills in a profession. Volunteering can also serve this purpose, but the driving force is your desire to help out. So for example, a teaching program can be viewed as an internship by those who wish to develop their teaching skills.”

The term ‘volunteer’ is widely used in the NGO sector, while the term ‘internship’ is more common in the corporate world, Study Magazine said in a 2010 article. However, “neither is mutually exclusive.”

The Centre for Volunteering warns that even if the area of internships is sometimes too complex to be properly understood by the employer and the employee, telling the difference between internships and volunteering is crucial. An internship is “a formal work experience arrangement that is part of an education or training course where the student needs to gain experience in a particular occupation or industry” and it is “always a short term arrangement.” The work performed during an internship is “not measured by productive activities” and the volunteer is “the chief beneficiary of the arrangement.”

“A volunteer is someone who works unpaid for the main purpose of benefitting someone else,” the Centre for Volunteering claims. Plus, “a volunteer role should not exceed 16 hours per week on a long term basis and no pay is provided for the work performed.” Furthermore, there is no legal contract that forces a volunteer to “perform work or attend the workplace.” Therefore, after the person decides what is the purpose of the arrangement and who receives the main benefit [the person or the association], it should be easier to decide between accepting an internship and choosing volunteering.

Avoiding a false dichotomy is the most important thing to do when defining the two terms, because both deserve appreciation and recognition. However, Rachel Burger, a Young Voices Advocate wrote in a Forbes piece last year that there is not much of a difference between ‘internship’ and ‘volunteering’ as long as the former is not a PAID activity. According to a survey conducted by the U.S. National Association of Colleges and Employers, hiring rates for young people who chose to complete an unpaid internship were almost the same for those who refused to complete an internship. Students with any history of a paid internship were far more likely to secure employment after graduation. The survey also emphasized that young people who accepted unpaid internships had a tendency to take lower-paying jobs than those with more internship experience and were financially outpaced later in life by students who completed paid internships.

An unpaid internship does not guarantee a career upon completion, which is why some people may put the equal sign between ‘internship’ and ‘volunteering’. If Burger is right, young people should aim for a paid internship to rid themselves of the doubts that accompany the timeless question: “Who is the beneficiary of my actions?

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