5 tips for a successful internship program

Interns at International Atomic Energy Agency. Photo by: Dean Calma / IAEA / CC BY-SA

Internships are almost a right of passage for anyone starting out their career in global development, and these experiences should be beneficial for all parties involved. For the employer, it is an opportunity to nurture emerging talent and gain new perspectives while benefiting from additional support for their teams and projects. For the intern, it is an opportunity to explore areas of interests, develop skills, gain exposure to different aspects of development work, and learn from professionals experienced in the sector.

An internship that is of real value to both the employer and the intern doesn’t just happen, however. Here, staff from Landesa and PATH, having both recently hosted young professionals as part of the Hilton Prize Coalition Fellows program, share their tips for hosting an intern. Keep reading to find out their tips for success.

Define the role

The intern’s role should be clearly defined and ideally involve them working on a long-term project where they can see how this is contributing to the overall mission of the organization. Katharine Kreis, head of the nutrition innovation team at PATH says she is not interested in bringing people in to “file and organize,” or in just finding things for them to do as they go. “This doesn’t make for the best experience for the intern,” she adds. Think about the new skills that a recent graduate or early-career professional could bring to your team, and plan for them to take ownership of meaningful and challenging projects that utilize these. Kreis says it is important to have a “very tight scope of work” and be clear how that person’s skill set fits that scope.

Set objectives

Get to know your intern. Learn about their passions and interests, and what they hope to gain from the experience. Colleen O’Holleran, project manager for Landesa’s program operations team, oversees the organization’s internship portfolio including candidates from the Hilton Prize Coalition Fellows program. From the very beginning of any placement, she asks the intern to identify personal learning objectives and outline what skills they wish to develop or gain. The intern’s role and responsibilities can then be catered to, helping them achieve these personal objectives.

Make mentoring part of the program

Identify members of staff who can assist in hosting interns. This can either be staff who will be working closely with the intern on a project, or simply a staff member with considerable insight of the organization and sector. “For us, it’s very important that the fellows are connected with a staff person,” says O’Holleran, that is “someone who can really be their mentor throughout the process.” For this to work well, ensure you make clear to the mentors what their role involves and what type of commitment is expected of them.

Regular check-ins

Once objectives have been identified, plan regular catch-up sessions where the intern can reflect on their progress and seek advice for further improvement. This helps facilitate the evaluation component of the intern program at Landesa, says O’Holleran, where the emphasis is on working towards personal objectives. Landesa staff also lead presentations, often twice per week, for the intern cohort to attend in person or join remotely and learn about different technical aspects of the organization’s work.

Kreis says that while she is not interested in micromanaging interns and looks for them to take on a leadership role, regular check-ins, either in the form of one-to-one conversations or weekly staff meetings, are still important. “We are very careful not to just let them blow in the wind, they are not a consultant, they are an intern, so they need guidance, they may need some help in terms of thinking things through,” says Kreis. It is about that “intersection” of a supportive environment and also allowing interns to be creative and sometimes make mistakes, she adds.

Focus on feedback

Whether through a formal review process or weekly check-in conversations, ensure there is always honest feedback for the intern. This should include praise for what they are doing well, as well as constructive feedback on how they can continue to improve. O’Holleran says that through evaluations with interns she realized how much they value feedback on their work and that it is one the greatests tools for them to learn. Whether an intern wants to be a better writer or improve their research skills, they don’t improve simply from doing the work, “they do it by getting employer feedback and constructive directional support from Landesa staff,” says O’Holleran.

Host organizations can also learn from their interns. Based on their own experience, they can suggest changes to the program, helping the organizations get more out of it and become more attractive as an employer to the emerging generation of development professionals. O’Holleran conducts exit interviews at the end of any program, to find out what worked well and to find ways they can improve their program for future fellows and interns.

About the author

  • Emma Smith

    Emma Smith is a Reporter at Devex. She covers all things related to careers and hiring in the global development community as well as mental health within the sector — from tips on supporting humanitarian staff to designing mental health programs for refugees. Emma has reported from key development hubs in Europe and co-produced Devex’s DevProWomen2030 podcast series. She holds a degree in journalism from Glasgow Caledonian University and a master's in media and international conflict. In addition to writing for regional news publications, she has worked with organizations focused on child and women’s rights.