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Tips for hosting virtual international interns

The Covid workplace has changed the way we think about office productivity. It is now clear that we have many of the tools at our disposal to manage large parts of our jobs remotely. So while Covid has all but halted the flow of international interns to our fair shores, many internship programs are experimenting with virtual models which enable student interns to work from across the globe.

What types of work can you expect from a virtual intern? Quite a lot, actually. Intern tasks can include, but are not limited to:

  • Online research
  • Report writing
  • Content development for web and social media
  • Data collection and entry
  • Creating multimedia content, using graphic design and sound and video editing skills
  • Online fundraising campaigns.

In other words, a virtual intern can do most tasks an in-person intern would normally do, except fieldwork. If they can do the work from a laptop, they can work for you.

Local vs international interns

Some NPOs may be hesitant to take on foreign nationals in internship positions for fear that they would be depriving a deserving young South African an employment opportunity that would offer them training and work experience.  However, South African and foreign interns typically belong to very different kinds of programs, fulfilling different purposes and carrying different expectations. It is important that local interns receive a stipend so as not to privilege students who can afford to work for free. Even if they are working virtually and will not have to pay for transport, they will likely incur data and airtime costs to be able to do their work. Compensating them for their time and resources, while offering them mentorship and work experience, is an important step in helping alleviate the incredibly high unemployment rate experienced by young adults in South Africa.

With foreign interns, stipends or compensation is rarely expected, and complex visa requirements will make paying them nearly impossible. Instead, many American universities offer their students the opportunity to study or intern abroad as a way to earn university credit. Increasingly, this is becoming an expectation, if not a requirement, for their degree programs. These interns are likely being supervised and graded as part of their internship programme, which can incentivize a stronger commitment to the work.

Both models are worthy. One is about uplift; the other, about institutional collaboration. Your organisation needs to decide its priorities and needs. Consider a model where you pair a local intern with an international one, offering them the opportunity to work together on a task remotely. The cultural exchange can be beneficial to them both, while producing much-needed assistance to your NPO.

Tips for a mutually beneficial internship collaboration

  • Acquaint the intern with your organisation. Give them some “assigned reading” before they start -- newsletters, annual reports, website, social media. Invite them to join staff meetings via Zoom. This will make them feel part of the team and give at least some of the experience of a traditional internship.
  • Provide a focused, finite project. Instead of suggesting an amorphous task as, “assist in online research,” ask for reports of x length, on specific topics. On the whole, their job description should include a clearly defined, manageable project that can be reasonably be completed in 6 to 12 weeks, or the length of their programme.
  • Write a clear job description. Such will help both parties achieve a “good fit” for the position, and will assure their overseas academic supervisors that the experience you provide will be worthy of university credit.
  • Remember language differences. Be prepared to help orient your intern to sector jargon and dialectical differences. Granted, these students are at university and should quick studies, but be patient. Terminology familiar in a South African context may not translate as easily to foreign interns. Additionally, some South African accents could be unfamiliar to an American ear, especially during a conference call where contextual cues are limited. Write out clear instructions and summarise meetings (which is a good practice anyway). 

  • Remember geographic differences. Remind them to set their spellcheck to UK English, not American, and to set their web browsers to point to South African results when doing research. Keep time-zone differences in mind when setting up meetings. 
  • Schedule regular meetings. A short weekly checking can be useful to make sure the work is proceeding as needed.  In between meetings, ask your intern to share files in the cloud. Apart from making it easy to provide feedback, it may help them keep a regular pace, as opposed to the typical college method of trying to “cram” a semester’s work into the last few days.
  • Have realistic expectations. Remember, they are interns, not consultants. Chances are the work they do will need supervising and editing.
  • Demand accountability.  Even for a virtual program, it’s important to find volunteers from a reputable intern/study abroad program. Typically, such interns are earning university credit for participation in a program and will have an added incentive to keep their commitment. Program directors seek and welcome your feedback so they can award a course grade for the intern’s performance. You should not hesitate to contact them if there is an issue.

Where do I find one?

Internship programs are constantly looking for partner organisations. So, there is a fair chance they will find you. If you’ve worked with a particular university before, but haven’t heard back since the pandemic began, contact them and ask if a virtual intern is a possibility. Universities are desperate to keep their programs running and may be more open to negotiation than you think. Visit the webpages of major universities and look for departments such as “Study Abroad” or “Education Abroad.” Many degree programs require internships and may be open-minded about going virtual, if they haven’t already. Or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to find out more about the international internship programs I manage. 


James Sleight | Hashtag Nonprofit

Director, Study Abroad

James Sleight manages study abroad and internship programmes for universities in the United States. Contact him if your nonprofit is interested in hosting virtual or in-person international interns. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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