Guidelines for Interns

Guidelines for interning with an international non-government organization

Many find the opportunity to do an internship very rewarding and often such experience enables the development of specific research skills. However, occasionally organizations sponsoring internships fail to follow best practices. As such, we recommend the following guidelines to early career scientists when considering an internship with an international non-government organization. Not every non-government organization will be able provide all of the information below; however, we believe groups that are accountable and transparent are more likely to act with integrity. Generally speaking, organizations that follow best practices in governance, professional relations and related areas are less likely to engage in unethical or irresponsible activities. A first step would be checking if the organization is registered with the government of the country in question.

Organizations should be able to provide contact information for one or more individuals who have previously served as interns or who work in close association with the organization but are not directly involved with intern recruitment or supervision. We strongly encourage prospective interns to make contact with these references prior to committing to an internship. A brief conversation with former interns or third-party persons associated with the organization will often be the best insurance against a potentially disappointing, dangerous or upsetting experience and may also help to provide interns with a clear sense of what will be expected of them during their tenure.

What follows are seventeen guidelines for assessing how well an intern-sponsoring organization meets widely recognized best practices. Following these guidelines is a list of eight warning signs, or “red flags” to look for once the intern has enrolled in the program. The guidelines are based on the criteria used by Charity Navigator, a 501c (3) organization based in New Jersey U.S.A. that rates and evaluates charity organizations.

Does the organization have a fully functioning website, including a website in English?

  1. Does the website clearly list the organization’s objectives and goals in a concise and realistic manner?
  2. Does the website include a list of diverse and independent voting board of directors, comprised of five or more people, with biographies and contact information?
  3. Does the organization provide a list of its key staff on its website, including each individual’s qualifications and contact information?
  4. If the organization accepts donations, does the website offer PayPal or other verifiable and secure electronic transfer method for the payment of donations and fees?
  5. Does the website include a list of projects and accomplishments that are that are measurable and realistic?
  6. Does the website include a list of current partner organizations, including contact information, and regular donors?

Are the organization’s governing and management practices transparent?

  1. Is the organization forthcoming with its financial records, including a yearly budget of individual program income and expenditures, fund raising expenses and efficiency, and administrative costs?
  2. Does the organization have readily available copies of its institutional by-laws and operating guidelines?
  3. Does the organization have clear and concise written policies and procedures for each of the programs it offers, including staff and intern safety, animal welfare (if appropriate), and rules and regulations, that are readily available to its participants?
  4. Does the organization have a written emergency response and preparedness plan that is clear, reasonable, concise, and is readily available to its participants?
  5. Does the organization keep a record of its board meeting minutes that is available upon request?
  6. Does the organization have a list of peer-reviewed publications in scientific journals as a result of its research claims?

Does the organization’s representative present the organization in a professional manner?

  1. Does the representative offer a structured and detailed description of the volunteer/internship program, including: the program/goals/objectives; the volunteers’/interns’ task descriptions, schedule and responsibilities; full description of every current project (rescue, rehabilitation, research etc.)?
  2. Does the representative offer a detailed, all-inclusive description of fees and food/accommodation agreement for volunteers/interns? Can the representative provide a template of the organization’s volunteer/internship contracts? Does the organization offer any kind of insurance for the volunteer/intern while they are working with the place of operation?
  3. Can the representative demonstrate that a thorough background check has been conducted on key staff (i.e. education and credentials, criminal record check, reviews from previous staff/volunteers/interns etc.)?
  4. Can the representative provide a demonstration of the housing it offers for interns and volunteers, an adequate rehabilitation facility if appropriate, and office headquarters?
  5. Can the representative demonstrate that the organization is affiliated with universities, local governments or other organizations? Does it offer academic credit from an accredited university for the internship programs it offers?

List of warning signs or “red flags”, to look for while working with a non-governmental organization as an intern

You may experience one of these indicators occasionally for a short period without concern; however, you should be wary of multiple “red flags”, especially if they persist. Under such circumstances, it is suggested that you seek independent advice from an experienced person that you trust.

  1. Does anyone in the organization ask you for money or out-of-pocket expenditures that are beyond the agreed-upon fees that you paid, or demand money during “crisis” situations where funds are lacking? Is there evidence that fees are used for purposes other than for the organization’s stated purpose?
  2. Are you consistently left alone, without appropriate supervision for extended periods of time? Is it difficult to reach the staff when their assistance is needed? Are you and other volunteers and interns kept isolated from members of the local community?
  3. Are you placed in positions of authority over other persons or projects without any prior knowledge, consent, or appropriate training?
  4. Is there visible conflict among staff and members of the organization, to the point that the environment is hostile? Do you consider that you are being manipulated by staff, or being exposed to harmful gossip or rumors about staff or other volunteers/ interns?
  5. Does the organization involve interns in expeditions in remote and/or dangerous locations without appropriate staff oversight and the necessary equipment for emergency preparedness such as first aid kits, communication equipment, and a list of emergency contact numbers?
  6. Do the staff and/or board of directors exhibit evidence of yearly turnover, or are there gaps in time where there is no directory of board members?
  7. Do the staff unduly criticize other non-profit or educational institutions, or professionals in the field?
  8. Do the organization’s members and/or staff claim scientific discoveries without presenting their findings for peer review?