The Economic Damage of Social Media “Internships”


Thanks to an improving economy, with the new year have come a bevy of new job openings for graduating collegians. Unfortunately, opportunities in the social media industry (and yes, by now that’s what it is) remain monopolized by a highly disingenuous job title: social media intern.

Internships are supposed to be a two-way street: businesses offer learning experiences and college credit to students and get free or low-cost labor in return. That is precisely how social media internships don’t work.

It’s usually cash-strapped nonprofits who post want ads for social media interns. For-profit corporations can generally afford the social-media services of professional branding and marketing consultants. (As I wrote last year, that’s an important distinction since you get what you pay for.)

Nonprofits would want actual marketing professionals, too, if they could afford them. Why? Because as late as 2010 many nonprofits, especially locally based and modestly sized nonprofits, have no internal expertise when it comes to why or even how to create and manage the social media presences on services like Twitter and Facebook that are critically important to reach out to contemporary, web-savvy donors and stakeholders.

So why do so many nonprofits advertise for social media interns? It’s not just because of the widely shared and substantially true assumption that today’s young people have superhuman social-media skills far beyond the powers of more mature nonprofit managers. I suspect it’s also–and most fundamentally–because foundations are telling them to do so.

Foundations are one of three primary sources of operating monies for nonprofits, along with individual donors and the government. They’re where nonprofits look first for revenue, and as a result, they’re where nonprofits look first for advice, as well. And what I would bet program managers are telling nonprofits is this:

“Times are tough and we can’t afford to hire professional marketing people for you. (Fundraisers and real-world community organizers, sure. Just not Internet marketing pros.) Say! Wait a minute! You know those college kids who you pay eight bucks an hour to stuff your envelopes? We bet they know a bunch about social media. See if you can smoke them get them to train your staff and roll out and manage those critical Twitter and Facebook accounts…Just don’t let them know they’re providing value. <wink><wink>”

I’m not saying funding entities are overtly telling nonprofits to hire interns. But I’ve sat through more than my share of Windy City confidential conversations/debates/arguments among foundation staffers, nonprofit staffers, journalists, and bloggers about this exact subject to know which way the wind is blowing.

That’s not to say there isn’t a wealth of social media how-to information available for use by nonprofits to engage their existing workers in online community development (for example, from the Knight Foundation.) But judging by the sea of “social media intern” job ads washing up on Windy City shores and across the country, it doesn’t look like existing staff are much interested in taking on such new-fangled responsibilities.

So nonprofits turn to college students. And for the good of social-media best practices, here’s why that’s the worst thing they can do:

  • It’s risky for nonprofits–Just because a college student knows how to tweet is no guarantee they know how to represent and market your nonprofit brand in front of potential donors and other supporters, online or off;
  • It’s unfair for interns–Organizations are supposed to add value to interns, not the other way around. If social media interns–good ones–are bringing to the table critical skills and knowledge that will qualitatively improve the organizations that engage them, they should be paid fairly for their services. In this case, that means whatever the going local rate is for professional Internet marketing services in the private sector; and
  • It’s damaging for everyone–By demanding cheap social-media labor, nonprofits are sending a signal to all sectors of the economy that online marketing should come at a discount. As these unfairly remunerated “internships” become more widespread, they stand a chance of depressing fair compensation rates for all online marketing professionals.

Nonprofits shouldn’t be demanding skilled labor to work for free, and foundations shouldn’t be looking the other way while they do so. Until both activities cease, social media and online marketing in general will continue to be the weakest link in the nonprofit communications chain.

After all, you get what you pay for.

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What do you think?