Project Wonderful

Friday, December 27, 2013

6 Simple Rules for Not Being a Jerk to Your Interns

A couple of weeks ago I got a message on my blog saying “you need to speak more highly of interns.” Someone picked the wrong day to mess with me because I had just spent 3 hours in traffic trying to move to DC. It did remind me however of the movement to pay interns and the critical differences between an internship and just free labor.

As much as I would love to say that all campaigns should pay their interns, it’s just not going to happen. The value that interns add to a political campaign is that they are skilled and invested workers who do not take (much) money out of the budget. At the same time they are not working for “free.” Interns are not indentured servants nor are they drones programed to make 7 hours of phone calls every day. Here are some best practices for valuing your interns so that you both have a rewarding experience.

1)Thank them! This is beyond basic, but often forgotten. Like volunteers, interns do not HAVE to be there. For whatever reasons they may come in to the office, they keep coming back for you. You could not run your campaign without them and need to treat them as such. Treat them with appreciation, kindness and respect always. ALWAYS.

2)Pay them in experience.People take internships to gain experience in a field and learn whether a specific job is the right fit for them. This is a key distinction between an intern and a volunteer. A volunteer may already have a career or be retired, an intern probably not. This is not to say interns will never do grunt work. On a campaign everyone does some grunt work. It is pretty expected in a college internship that 50% of time will be spent on menial but meaningful tasks. For us, this might include voter contact, data entry, or assembling walk packets. BUT not only is it inhumane to plop someone down in front of a phone for 7 hours, it is not a good way to keep them coming back. Take the time to show your interns how to do staff level tasks. How to cut turf, pull lists, write a script etc. They are there to learn.

3)Empower your interns. Since you’ve trained your interns well, they are able to take on more responsibility. For interns or for staff, goals help create a sense of growth, accomplishment and accountability. For example, interns can recruit for and run their own phone banks, deploy a canvass or coordinate a smaller size house party. Less work for you, more experience for them!

4)Explain why. Don’t just train your interns HOW to do a task, explain WHY. This is important for all your volunteers but critical for interns. If your interns walk away from their internship without the ability to explain how and why a campaign office works you have failed them.

5)Create clear and reasonable expectations. How much of a time commitment do you expect the and when—are they committing to a certain number of early mornings or call times? Discuss the kind of work they will be doing (it’s not all fundraisers and rallies). Remember that not everyone can afford a full-time unpaid internship. Hold yourself accountable to these agreements as well.

6)Hire your interns. True you are not paying interns a salary, but as we discussed above, you are paying them in time, your most precious resource. Interns will be representing your campaign in an official capacity and will ask you for recommendations later. (Recently I had the unfortunate experience of having to tell an “intern” who I did not hire that I would not serve as a reference for her.) Putting your name or your candidate’s name behind someone is a big deal and is an honor that should not be bestowed on just any college student who wanders into your office. Ask why they want to be there. Someone without a real interest in elections or your campaign is not going to be worth your investment. Once you invest, make that investment real and make an internship with your campaign mean something.

And for Godsakes, feed them!

Intern love and mine,



  1. All great points. I always made sure to try to bring each along to an important meeting or two. And even though there was never any pay, little differences can make a *huge* difference; I remember how big a deal it was when I was interning years ago when they just gave me an email address ON THE OFFICIAL DOMAIN.

    Also, even though it sounds ridiculous from a time management standpoint, giving them an important evening off to get a good seat at one of your rallies, or giving them a brief, private audience with the candidate can both be meaningful rewards for someone just getting into campaigns and working for free.

  2. I totally agree with Mario... a perk to being an intern on a campaign should be sweet spots at the rally, a tiny bit of access to the candidate, or some other "insider" treat.

    And I love the idea of encouraging interns to write. Producing a vol recruitment script is not rocket science, and they could theoretically write all kinds of things... which you might one day use. Let them write to their hearts content, with the knowledge that the campaign may or may not use it (and for ghostwriting situations, may or may not be credited), but they may produce some nugget of gold that will spruce up the end-of-quarter email ask or something like that. Something where they know they made a difference... that's all anyone wants in their job!