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Creating A Rewarding Internship Program At Your Animal Sanctuary

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Updated September 3, 2021

If you’re managing a nonprofit animal sanctuary, you’re likely always going to be on the hunt for more resources, especially in the form of extra hands to help in nearly every department. Robust volunteer programs are the lifeblood that keep sanctuaries running smoothly and give sanctuary founders time to breathe. You may be wondering how you can bolster your volunteer pool with a formal internship program. Although it sounds like an easy win-win for you and your potential intern (you get help, they get more time and experience at a sanctuary), if you are based in the United States, you must develop your internship program with awareness of labor laws and in the spirit of what an internship should be. By creating the program mindfully, you can ensure that you are providing a rewarding and non-exploitative experience for people who want to take their participation at your sanctuary to the next level.

What Defines An Internship?

Unfortunately, legal clarity defining internships is murky at best, but they are generally regarded as a type of work experience where a student or person considering a career change can be immersed into an organization for a set period of time in order to gain valuable experience and professional references. An internship is not a way of assigning tasks that nobody at your sanctuary wants to perform, nor is it a way to simply get free help. On the flip side, interns also generally should not be in sole charge of performing any task that is critical for the day to day operation of your sanctuary. The internship experience must primarily benefit the intern, and there must be a strong educational component and a method of demonstrating learned experience. That being said, interns can still perform very helpful and productive work for with your sanctuary while adhering to federal guidelines!

Compensating An Intern

An intern can either be offered a position on a volunteer basis with no financial compensation, or on a small stipend, or as a compensated employee. If you are classifying an intern as an employee, you will have to follow all of the state and federal labor laws that govern employment. Conversely, if they are a volunteer, you must not treat them as an employee! Generally it is not advisable to offer a stipend to a volunteer intern, but if you do, you must be very cautious in order to not trigger a Department of Labor audit. Any stipend should not exceed 20% of what it would cost you to hire an employee in the intern’s department.

You can also work with a prospective student’s university in order to learn how your internship program can be structured in order to provide college credit. Each university will have different requirements in terms of duration, assessment, and paperwork in order to qualify an internship as a suitable replacement for classroom time.

Regardless of how you choose to compensate your intern, you must make it abundantly clear that an intern is not necessarily going to be entitled to a job at your sanctuary when their internship ends. This prevents any expectation from either party that an internship is an unpaid evaluation of potential employees, unpaid training, or a way to skirt labor laws.

How To Find Prospective Interns

Internship availability should be promoted in a number of different avenues in order to find a broad pool of potentially interested candidates. Your internship program could be promoted:

  • On tours and at events at your sanctuary where you promote volunteer opportunities
  • On your website and in occasional social media posts
  • On internship and job posting boards online, such as indeed
  • At local university job, volunteering, and internship fairs
  • On message boards and social media for people concerned with compassionate animal treatment in your region

You can create and distribute an internship information and application form with free online tools like Google Forms in order to keep your applicant pool organized in a centralized place. Online form systems also allow you to easily modify internship availability and parameters as your program evolves.

Create Reasonable Expectations

Once you have a strong candidate for your internship program, make sure that you’re transparent and upfront with the expectations that you have for them in writing before they agree to an internship commitment. This includes factors such as:

  • The legal relationship between the sanctuary and the intern (if they are not an employee, this must be made explicitly clear)
  • The duration of the internship, as well as whether the internship length can be extended
  • A roadmap for what the intern should expect to do and learn at your sanctuary, and who will supervise and evaluate them
  • If there is any compensation for the role or a policy for reimbursing expenses incurred
  • Whether an intern is covered by your sanctuary’s insurance policy
  • What general sanctuary policies and code of conduct an intern will be expected to follow
  • Whether interns can share photos or videos of the residents
  • Expectations of privacy with regards to sensitive organization information

These guidelines should be reviewed and accepted by potential interns in a signed internship contract in order to demonstrate their understanding of your expectations for the position, as well as the consequences for failing to meet these expectations.

In addition, ensure that whoever is supervising your intern is also aware of the expectations of your arrangement. They should be aware of the importance of education and feedback in the internship experience, as well as the legal limitations of what an intern can and cannot be asked to do in their department. Although they’ll require guidance and training, and there may be safety concerns that must be strongly voiced, a volunteer intern cannot be “controlled” by a staff member, as this is primarily an indication of an employer-employee relationship.

Internship Opportunities At Farmed Animal Sanctuaries

Sanctuaries have a number of different areas of operation that could attract prospective interns, including:

  • Animal care– An intern could learn from your care guides everything that goes into respectfully caring for sanctuary residents
  • Education And Outreach– An intern could learn from your sanctuary’s education department about tour management, marketing, public relations, and education development
  • Social Media– An intern could learn about best practices in getting your sanctuary more visibility in the digital world, and learn about effective photography, videography, persuasive writing, and having respectful and productive dialogue with the public
  • Facilities And Construction– An intern could learn about design, building, and maintenance of all aspects of a sanctuary’s grounds, including construction, building modifications, animal safety, and threat mitigation
  • Fundraising– An intern could learn best practices in raising money and resources for nonprofits from your development team, including writing appeals, creating fundraising strategies, and effectively managing donor relationships
  • Administrative- An intern could learn what it takes to run a farmed animal sanctuary, including budgeting, future planning, and managing the day-to-day challenges of nonprofit life
  • Volunteers- An intern could learn about how to mange, recruit, and maintain relationships with volunteers organization-wide, as well as craft engaging newsletters and running events

If your sanctuary operates at a smaller scale, an intern might revolve through a number of these departments and roles over time. Just make sure that you have a structured plan for them beyond “Help where you need help”!

Don’t Break The Law

Anybody in the United States who is or was engaged in an internship, regardless of what contracts they might have signed, has the right to ask the US Department of Labor whether they should be reclassified as an employee. The government will review the internship and your organization’s employment practices to make a classification determination. While there is no obvious line between where an internship ends and misclassified employment begins, the Department of Labor uses a seven point “primary beneficiary test” to determine employment under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The test looks broadly at the economic reality of the relationship between an intern and employer to determine who primarily benefits from the established relationship. The seven factors include:

  • The extent to which the intern and the employer clearly understand that there is no expectation of compensation. Any promise of compensation, express or implied, suggests that the intern is an employee—and vice versa.
  • The extent to which the internship provides training that would be similar to that which would be given in an educational environment, including the clinical and other hands-on training provided by educational institutions.
  • The extent to which the internship is tied to the intern’s formal education program by integrated coursework or the receipt of academic credit.
  • The extent to which the internship accommodates the intern’s academic commitments by corresponding to the academic calendar.
  • The extent to which the internship’s duration is limited to the period in which the internship provides the intern with beneficial learning.
  • The extent to which the intern’s work complements, rather than displaces, the work of paid employees while providing significant educational benefits to the intern.
  • The extent to which the intern and the employer understand that the internship is conducted without entitlement to a paid job at the conclusion of the internship.

While there is much more leniency afforded to nonprofits engaged in “humanitarian objectives” when determining an intern’s classification, you must still take the real possibility of a labor audit into account when crafting your internship program. What this realistically means is, do not hire an intern with the expectation that they will functionally serve as an unpaid or underpaid employee (see factor 6 above). If you want to hire an intern to fill an employment or labor gap, be warned that this is both exploitative and can put your organization in legal and financial peril. A misclassified intern ruling can lead to back wages, taxes, fines, and even a potential lawsuit. The Department of Labor is currently working on revising their guidelines for nonprofit interns, and has been cracking down on employment misclassifications of all kinds in the nonprofit world.

Feedback For Everybody

At the least, at the conclusion of an intern’s tenure, you should schedule time for feedback, with the goal of evaluating the intern’s growth, the intern’s assessment of your organization, and the state of your internship program. This is a prime opportunity to hear your intern’s perspective, provide them with valuable professional feedback, and help grow your internship program into a positive, memorable experience for future interns. Consider having two exit interviews: one interview between the intern and their direct supervisor, and another interview between the intern and an unrelated member of your organization in order to get a fair assessment of how the program is going and where it could be improved. It may also be of value to both you and your intern to schedule regular “reviews” during their internship, perhaps on a biweekly basis, to assess their experience and growth, and learn whether there are other areas of development that they may wish to pursue.

Example Farmed Animal Sanctuary Internship Programs

Take a look at the internship programs offered at the following three sanctuaries. Although they each have their own unique approaches to their internship programs, they each follow best practices in how they provide information and create expectations of what a prospective intern will learn and gain out of the experience!

Farm Sanctuary

Woodstock Farm Sanctuary

Catskill Animal Sanctuary

Need A Sanctuary Internship Agreement Template?

Click here to access The Open Sanctuary Project’s Internship Agreement Template! As with all templates, this is just a start, and should be carefully reviewed by your team and a legal professional in your region before being put into use!


Internship Programs Under The Fair Labor Standards Act | US Department Of Labor

Interns: Employee Or Volunteer | National Council Of Nonprofits

Internships And The Law: What You Need To Know | Charity Village

Nonprofit Interns: IRS Regulations And Liability | Guidestar

The Unpaid Internship: Proceed With Caution | Nonprofit Pro

Doing an Internship for College Credit | The Balance Careers

Updated on September 3, 2021

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