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How to tell if a charity board is an undercover unpaid internship

Mita Desai

26 October 2020

This #TrusteesWeek we’re asking: how can you tell if a charity board is an undercover unpaid internship?

The unethical unpaid internships equation often goes as follows:

  • You access: opportunity & get prioritised through nepotism
  • You give: free labour
  • You get: long term career progression + contacts

Many charities agree that this is a problem as it:

  • Excludes or puts additional pressure on people who can’t afford to work for free
  • Stops the organisation from getting the best talent

But often those same charities would allow this to be the case for their board of trustees, thus creating the “undercover unpaid internship”.

So here are 3 signs (not counting the obvious one of not even having an open recruitment process) to help you spot if a trusteeship is really an undercover unpaid internship:

1) It asks for excessive experience, instead of providing training:

They state “we welcome applicants from diverse backgrounds” combined with “we are looking for someone with at least 10 years of experience in X”. Some people might say “well this is acceptable because how could they do the role if they do not have this level of experience?”.

The answer to that question is yes - being a trustee requires you to be able to have certain skills e.g understand how to read a financial budget. However, many boards recruit with the assumption that candidates who have years of work experience in an area will just know what to do. This is bizarre when we think of how important the role is and that people are volunteers in this role - it makes sense to invest in training and inductions for all trustees. For instance a lot of boards have told us that when they started offering Young Trustees training on how to read board papers - they realised that this is something the whole board needs. Once it was implemented, this has created much more constructive conversations in the boardroom.

2) It chooses free labour and contacts over diversity of thought:

In such uncertain and hard times, diversity is seen as a nice to have, rather than an essential part of governance. If a board who is recruiting, has a choice between two candidates who bring:

  • Diversity of thought and perspectives (Candidate A)


  • Contacts and free labour (Candidate B)

It may be tempting to choose candidate B, however free labour and contacts is not the core role of a trustee. It takes a board who are committed to governance to prioritise candidate A. This is a choice to prioritise better diversity of thought and therefore lower the board’s risk of ‘group think’ - when a group of people's desire for conformity leads to dysfunctional decision making. In turn, this enables the charity to better navigate uncertainty and reflect the interests of their communities.

3) Policies and systems are centred around a privileged demographic

Many policies and systems have been written by people from a privileged demographic. This means that it requires reflection for how a board’s policies and procedures may act as a barrier to participation. For instance, many Young Trustees have said that due to awkward meeting times they would have to take time off work to attend. This acts as a barrier and is easily fixed by changing the meeting times so that you don’t have to take time off work. If doing this is not possible, then you can offer monetary compensation for attending the meeting. (Many people are shocked to know this is an option - yes it totally is legal: charity commission guidance here , helpful form here)

Ultimately a lot of charities are focused on fixing some kind societal problem, but they're set up in a way that excludes diversity of thought and doesn’t reflect society. This is a huge problem, as without it charities are less able to navigate uncertainty, reflect the interests of their communities or make future proof decisions. To fix it we need to take a systematic and holistic view to changing boardrooms.

There are so many benefits to being a trustee - it shouldn't be only accessible to a homogeneous elite. Just how charities stand against unpaid internships - they need to stand against the “undercover unpaid internship”. For the sake of better governance, we need power holders to take action.

If you are reading this and thinking - our board does this already. That’s great - tell us so we can share your best practice!

If you are reading this and thinking OH NO - my board is totally an undercover unpaid internship! You now have 2 options:

  • Continue to exclude - recruit people like you, set up systems/policies that are disproportionately centered around an elite and allow a lack of diverse perspectives to be un-challenged.
  • Embark on a journey of change - our mission is not to make you feel guilty but to support you to become inclusive. We are asking boards to commit to better, more inclusive governance. We are making the first step to this simple - come to our free 1 hour workshop. 

What will you choose to do next?

Book a Training Session

Join a 1 hour training session to understand the power of young trustees, have a framework to understand how to approach board diversity and take practical next steps.