The Anti-Internship – How I started hiring 30 year old interns when I was 22

Posted by | September 24, 2012 | blog, Entrepreneurship | No Comments

While I was still with Dreams for Kids DC in 2010, one of our summer interns managed to plan an enormous adaptive baseball clinic with the Washington Nationals. The clinic ended up getting cancelled a few hours before the event due to rain.

As I sat there in the rain telling families and volunteers that the clinic was not going to take place, I looked over at my intern and asked her if she was going to be all right, and she started to cry. She had taken this clinic from a simple adaptive clinic to one of the largest in DC’s history, with high level disability advocates, professional athletes, and media outlets poised to attend. The impact would have been huge, and she knew it.

As we stood with rain soaked through every layer of clothing we had on, we talked about how this was going to pave the way for many clinics in the future and what a great job she had done. I didn’t tell her at the time, but the most special thing to see as a manager was a young person, at only 21 years old, who was able to plan a truly world class event and felt so connected to the work that she was literally brought to tears at the thought of it not happening. It takes some work, and if you dedicate yourself to it, the “anti-internship” can change the way you do business forever.

It all started with Dan Pink and a little acronym, AMP (Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose). Dan Pink delivered his talk titled “The Surprising Science of Motivation” at TED Global 2009, and it transformed my idea of and strategy for employee happiness and fulfillment. It opened my eyes to a world of opportunity and enabled me, an untested and under-experienced manager, to lead and grow an organization through the support of unpaid volunteers and interns.

When I first heard Dan’s speech, I was 22 years old and in the process of starting a children’s non-profit, Dreams for Kids DC. I needed help to get things going and had managed to recruit seven unpaid interns. Interestingly enough, I was managing them via g-chat while sitting in the office of my “real” job as an Executive Recruiter.

As a first time and very green manager, my objective was simple: identify what we needed to get done and have my interns handle the necessary tasks. Allocating tasks on a day-to-day basis proved exhausting for me and ineffective for the organization. Even worse, I was a young person who genuinely wanted to help young professionals develop, and I was frustrated by the fact that these internships I had created resembled the stereotypical clerical or administrative “paper pushing” internships that I had experienced and HATED in college. Then AMP happened and the perfect internship began to take form.

In his talk, Dan Pink stresses that the key factor for employee happiness is progress—your employees feeling that they are working towards something and growing at all times. Rather than talk to you about the specific components of AMP, I will let you watch the video and discover for yourself.

After I saw the talk, I sat there inspired and had this lingering idea of the anti-internship: the entry level position that would create a platform for young people to do relevant work that they cared about, while also making significant contributions to our bottom line. Here is how we did it (with unpaid interns):

1. Identify your own needs and untouched projects.

– Identify all organizational needs that can be presented as projects, i.e. an event or specific essay/paper. For Dreams for Kids this would be an adaptive baseball clinic or our monthly newsletter.

– Think about any organizational projects that you have wanted to develop but haven’t because it is a low priority, i.e. a new system or strategy development. For Dreams for Kids this was our social media strategy and a new contact management system.

2. Identify your interns’ goals and aspirations (help them figure it out, if necessary).

– It is of the utmost importance that the work your interns are doing is relevant to their professional development. They should be able to say that this job will be the exact notch on their resume that they would want to show a prospective employer.

– When an intern calls in for an interview, the first questions I ask them are, “What is your dream job?” “What are you hoping to learn about?” and “What do you want to take away from this internship?” If they can’t answer these questions I will tell them to think about it and call me back (literally). If your interns have no idea what they are working towards, there can be no progress.

– They don’t need to be able to specify a particular “job,” but they do need to specify a function that they want to focus on, i.e. Communications, Project Management, Development, PR, etc.

3. Identify projects that match your needs to your interns’ personal aspirations and give them space to create.

– Your interns will be excited and empowered by the fact that they have an opportunity to take ownership of a significant project that they can see is relevant for their personal development and success. The incentive to do well on the project has been laid out for them and the motivator is now intrinsic.

– You can lay out bare minimums to ensure the work gets done, while also making sure they know that the possibility to scale their projects is available. Make it clear that they are responsible for the project, and it is up to them to complete the projects status quo or to take them to extraordinary levels that will differentiate them from their peers moving forward.

4. Detailed goal setting

– Weekly detailed goal setting will be your measurement of the amount of autonomy you give your interns. For Dreams for Kids this equates to a “weekly work back” that details what is expected of interns during the week. They are responsible for accomplishing all of their tasks by the assigned deadlines. The only exception is for those interns who have come to you with questions and concerns ahead of time.

– It is important that you encourage questions and make yourself available as a teacher when they ask you. Your interns will be expected to accomplish all of their goals on time and if they feel that they will be unable to do that, they need to come to a manger ahead of time to express concerns and overcome the difficulties. This means that all unfinished tasks that have not been brought to your attention will not be tolerated.

Back to the adaptive baseball clinic with the Washington Nationals that I told you about… That clinic has was rescheduled with the Washington Nationals, and IT WAS INCREDIBLE! Check out the video here


  • Do you have a cool business that you think young people would enjoy getting involved with?
  • Do you have unfinished projects in your head that a young person could help manifest?
  • Do you aspire to help passionate young people who want to make a difference?

Maybe it’s time you considered the “anti-internship.”


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