How Small Organizations Can Attract Top Talent Through A Quality Internship Program

February 13, 2020 Avi Criden

How Small Organizations Can Attract Top Talent Through A Quality Internship Program

A great internship program can be developed inexpensively, run with limited staff and attract qualified candidates regardless of the size of the organization.

When it comes to quality internship programs, a misconception exists that goes something like this: In order to develop a quality program, an organization must possess ample resources, a large dedicated staff and impeccable name recognition. 

This is entirely false! 

A search for “best internship program” will likely direct you to a few tech giants, financial institutions or other prominent organizations. These companies invest heavily in their internship programs to convert qualified interns into employees, thereby cutting on-boarding costs and solidifying viable entry-level talent pipelines. Knowing this, students understandably gravitate to these programs for their strong reputation, promise of employment and generous compensation.

However, for every tech or financial giant out there, there are scores of small organizations running thoughtful, innovative and, at times, superior internship programs.

The truth is that a great internship program can be developed inexpensively, run with limited staff and attract qualified interns regardless of the size and reputation of the organization. In fact, on many occasions, small organizations outperform their larger counterparts by sticking to their strengths and personalizing the experience, allowing them to create highly competitive programs.

For every tech or financial giant out there, there are scores of small organizations running thoughtful, innovative and, at times, superior internship programs.

So...let’s dig a little deeper into the virtues of small-but-mighty internship programs and remind managers how to leverage their comparative advantage!

Cherish Your Flexibility 

Large organizations often define program success in mathematical terms. Success is contingent upon high conversion rates and the establishment of talent acquisition mechanisms. In contrast, smaller organizations are unburdened by hiring quotas and possess the flexibility to define (and revise) their internship programs based on the needs of the moment.

Tip for Managers: Do the early work by thinking critically about what success looks like for you. Whether your goal is to solve an overarching institutional problem, help with broad administrative duties or contribute to numerous smaller-scale initiatives, you are nimble enough to tailor the internship to match your needs and the strengths of your interns. So, before every internship cycle revisit your objectives, redefine what success should look like and design projects that match the need.

Mentorship & Personal Support

Google will always attract top talent because, well, they’re Google. But this doesn’t mean that they provide a more meaningful experience to the intern. In fact, when most people recall their most meaningful educational, professional experiences they seldom speak of grandeur, reputation or even the money. Quite the opposite. They emphasize the people they met, the relationships they forged and the way in which their work aligned with their values. This is how people attribute meaning to experience!

Tip for Managers: By working in a small organization, you’re far better equipped to connect with your interns, meet them at their level, identify and leverage their strengths, get the most out of them while they’re with you, and create an experience that is personal and meaningful. Embrace this by structuring frequent touch-points and feedback loops, articulate the values of the organization and the reasons they resonate with you, inquire about your interns' unique aspirations, and set them up with a mentor. When you connect with your interns they'll reward you with productivity and loyalty long after they depart.

A Multifaceted Experience

Working in a small organization can be chaotic at times; tumultuous and ever-changing. As a manager, you likely wear more hats than you’d like. This is a blessing in disguise. Because you handle a wide array of projects, initiatives, tasks and responsibilities, your interns will be afforded the opportunity to engage in them as well. Remember, interns are there to learn and refine their professional competencies, not solely to land a job. Working on numerous, diverse tasks should be very appealing to a generation that understands the value of short term skill-building experiences.

Tip for Managers: Design multiple small-scale diverse projects related to your current or future work. It might be helpful for you to attribute specific career readiness competencies to each project or task. This will allow you to present the intern with a holistic and diverse learning experience that maximizes their time at work!

Projects that Really Impact the Organization

There’s no such thing as a small task in a small organization! Everything you do can potentially impact the health of the organization in very real ways. This can be a persuasive marketing tool to draw top talent interested in the type of work that substantially impacts the organization. More than a paycheck, company swag or any of the bells and whistles of larger internship programs, this is what makes an experience memorable in the eyes of interns (even if they realize it after the fact).

Tip for Managers: Create a short description for each project you envision your interns working on. Include context, process and objectives but really emphasize the rationale behind the projects and the potential impact on the organization. Share this with interns during the interview process to get them excited about the role.

Network Building and Access to Upper Management

Finally, small organizations have fewer steps separating intern from upper management. This is an asset many larger programs cannot always offer and an amazing way to engage interns long-term. Remember, transitioning into the workforce can be confusing and full of uncertainty; hearing from successful people in the field can offer the reassurance and guidance many interns covet.

Tip for Managers: Structure routine opportunities for interns to learn from executives (and vice versa), institute a final project presentation attended by all staff and allow executives to provide tailored feedback to the intern. The more you can generate buy-in from upper management the more engaged your interns will be.

To conclude, there are many, often unrecognized advantages that allow small organizations to develop quality internship programs that are truly unique. Small organizations have the ability to engage students more authentically, create immersive and multifaceted learning experiences for their interns, and support students, mentor, and guide their interns as they transition from college students to young professionals. 

About the Author

Avi Criden

Avi Criden is the Director of Academic Internship Programs at The Washington Center. He is an experiential education specialist with a background in experience and curriculum design. Avi has a Bachelors in Anthropology from UC Berkeley and a Masters in International Education and Development from Teachers’ College, Columbia University. Avi is a veteran, AmeriCorp alum and proud father and husband.

More Content by Avi Criden
Previous Resource
Employer Guide to Writing Remote Internship Job Descriptions
Employer Guide to Writing Remote Internship Job Descriptions

The Washington Center uses your internship job description to identify students who may be the right fit fo...

Next Article
The Washington Center’s 45th Anniversary
The Washington Center’s 45th Anniversary

Yearlong ‘Monumental Career Journeys Start Here’ Celebration Commences

Interested in Hosting an Intern? Support your organization's mission while helping to launch successful careers. TWC provides interns that fit.

Learn more