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ECOS 39(6): ‘Own Transport Preferred’: Potential problems with long-term volunteering and internships

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Conservation organisations rely heavily on volunteers, and many also offer paid and unpaid internships. Gaining volunteer experience is seen as a normal and necessary part of the journey into a conservation career. This article discusses the pit-falls to navigate on the path to internships.

Careers of free labour…

‘A student or recent graduate in a special field of study (as medicine or teaching) who works for a period of time to gain practical experience.’

The Merriam-Webster English Dictionary definition of ‘intern’

Ten of us had been invited to the selection day for the post of ‘Paralegal Intern’. The Head of the Department was a fully qualified solicitor who openly told us he earned in excess of £50,000 per year. We sat listening in silence as he explained what an excellent opportunity the unpaid Internship was. Then one of us chipped in: ‘Did you do such a placement when you first started here?’

Unpaid internships were highlighted as an area of concern in the 2017 government Taylor review into working practises (1). Internships are long-term, typically unpaid, work experience placements. They are typically designed with graduates in mind, allowing those recently graduated to gain valuable experience of working within their chosen field, while giving employers the chance to cherry pick the best future employees without having to go through the costs involved in recruitment. The usual duration is six months but they can last as long as a year.

Such internships have become increasingly common in certain professions, including the media, law, and public relations (2). The Taylor report raised concerns that employers were abusing internships, gaining unpaid work themselves without the intern or volunteer gaining any meaningful training or experience. Unpaid internships are a topic of recurring grievance on internet forums such as the Huffington Post (3) and Buzzfeed (4).

Should this be of concern within the environmental sector? Volunteering has and continues to be a keystone of the environmental conservation field. Much volunteering is informal, involving merely single days or a few hours per week without formal commitment. We have all taken part in ‘volunteer days.’ However longer term, more formal, posts also exist. Whether they are called ‘internships’, ‘work experience placements’, ‘long term volunteering’ or ‘traineeships’ these all typically involve working several days per week on a full time basis for many months; much as is required in a paid employment position. Does the environmental sector adequately protect these long-term volunteers?

This article aims to raise awareness of some of the potential disadvantages of such long-term volunteering both to the individual involved and our sector collectively. Often organisations emphasise the positives, but not the negatives of such unpaid work. Hopefully this will help those considering taking part in such schemes choose the right posts for them. By highlighting examples of good practise, hopefully it will raise standards generally within conservation.

Internship Good Practice

The main national environmental organisations all offer long term internships or work experience placements, including the Wildlife Trusts (5), the National Trust (6) and the RSPB. The RSPB runs an exemplary internship programme which is a model of good practice: there is a special internship page for those seeking such positions (7). When contacted, Martin Fowlie, an RSPB officer explained they offer about 70 such posts per year (8). They also offer residence-based internships; as our avian fauna does not always conveniently reside close to human habitation but in some remote locations. Although there is no formal contract, potential interns are provided with a clear role description setting out what it is they will be doing and the mutual expectations both they and the RSPB have about their role. A clear training programme, which is evidenced, is put into place for these internships. There is also a special volunteer grievance procedure. Given the nature of some of the roles offered, involving bird surveying in remote locations, it is clear these posts are not replacing paid positions.

Private environmental consultants may also offer internships. For example, one company Peak Ecology (9), based in Hathersage, Derbyshire offers annual internships and has done so for five years. It is a model of good practice. The Director, Jonathan Brickland when asked said, “I have no issue with the use of volunteers but believe very strongly that if we are being paid by a client then the ecologist doing the work should be paid by us!” Interns are offered a seven month contract, and also undergo a structured training programme, receiving a dossier of the training completed at the end of the programme. Peak Ecology has gone on to employ two former interns. Crucially, the internship is not unpaid: interns receive the minimum wage.

Neil Bennett – 2018

The benefits and potential problems of internships

There are many benefits of internships, and of volunteering in general, and organisations are not reluctant to cite them (10):

  • Making the world a better place: Those wishing to work in Environmental Conservation want to make the world a better place (11). Those engaged in our sector care deeply about the natural world and wildlife. Realising the societal benefits of volunteering, the 2010 Coalition Government promoted the idea of the ‘Big Society’ and the community value of volunteering (12).
  • Work experience: Those participating in internships gain valuable work experience and improve their employability. Employers sampled viewed volunteering favourably (13). When directly surveyed 38% of volunteers said they wished to improve their CV (14). Not only are they gaining experience but they are in the right place at the right time if posts come up: volunteering offers a chance to get your foot in the door.
  • Health and well-being: Volunteering has many physical and mental health benefits (15), and it can help tackle loneliness. For example a survey of over 2000 volunteers found that over 90% had had a positive experience due to volunteering (16).
  • Conservation organisations: Environmental organisations gain the use of talented graduates and other individuals at a minimal cost. These volunteers bring a wide range of specialist skills and knowledge. Internships offer organisations the chance to find the brightest and best.

Less often expressed are the potential negatives of internships:

  • Possibility of exploitation: Employers offering unpaid internships are getting free labour. This means they can potentially undercut private companies, thus gaining an unfair advantage. Legally if interns or volunteers are working they are entitled to the National Minimum Wage (19, 20). Exemptions exist for students, those in full time education and those working for registered charities. Interns should not be performing work that is usually paid in nature or which equivalent people are being employed to do. Interns should not be given the promise or suggestion of future paid work; this makes them liable to receive the minimum wage (20). The TUC provides an app for interns to determine whether they are entitled to receive the minimum wage (21). Aside from the legal implications, working for no financial reward can be demoralising . This can especially be the case for graduates who may feel they already ‘deserve’ paid employment following years of study. Those offering to volunteer may be devaluing their own worth: if you were not worth paying before, why now?
  • Socially divisive: Internships are socially divisive and breed elitism (22). A recent All Parliamentary Report on Social Mobility, conducted in association with the Sutton Trust highlighted the problem of internships hindering social mobility (23). Being unpaid, or lowly paid, means that only those with other financial means can consider becoming interns. This effectively filters out those from low socio-economic backgrounds (22, 23). Those taking part in internships are typically Russell Group-educated, middle class, and under 30 (22). The Taylor review in 2017 noted a ‘class division’ occurring, with those from lower classes ‘volunteering’ and those from wealthier backgrounds being ‘interns’ (1).
  • Nepotism: A particular problem that has been highlighted is that often internships of long-term volunteer posts are not openly advertised, instead going to those with existing connections to people already working in the organisation (23): outsiders may be excluded. This effectively sidelines recruitment fair practice.
  • Reduction in level entry posts: Both the Taylor review (1) and UNITE (22) highlight that unpaid internships are reducing the number of entry level paid posts. For example in environmental management there is an increasing trend for local authorities to transfer management of local natural areas to either private contractors or local wildlife charities. This creates cost savings to the council but has resulted in loss of posts in countryside departments. Sheffield provides a good example, where management of local nature reserves is now shared by a variety of local community and ‘friends of’ groups and the local Wildlife Trust (24).
  • Signature collection‘: Much conservation work relies on grants provided by national funding organisations. Such money must be bid for in grant applications. Providing evidence of volunteer engagement is often a key feature of such applications. For example the Heritage Lottery Fund provides guidance on collecting evidence of participation (25). It is not unknown for ‘signature collection’ to occur, anyone wandering past being asked to sign that they have participated in activities. Are you really contributing as a volunteer or are you merely being used to evidence community involvement for funded projects?
  • Voluntary credentialism: Academic credentialism is where entry to a profession is restricted to those with particular qualifications, whether the potential candidate is capable of the work or not (26). Has the requirement for volunteer work become a similar meaningless requirement? Many employment opportunities come with an expectation of volunteer experience. Are such long periods of volunteer work really essential for those entering environmental conservation? Is practical voluntary experience really beneficial if applying for project-based office work? Does long-term volunteering effectively provide the project management skills needed in senior posts?
  • Reputation damage: Those in the third sector are acutely aware that poorly-run internships may lead to reputational damage (22). This is of key concern to organisations relying on projecting a positive public image. In 2018 Cancer Research UK decided to end all unpaid internships because of the risks involved (27).
  • Compulsion: Volunteering should be undertaken through choice. Changes to the benefit system have introduced a certain amount of compulsion into seeking employment. It may be that those participating in internships or volunteering feel pressured to do so (28). Potential participants may express enthusiasm, simply because they fear benefit sanctions should they show reluctance. Such participants may offer to take voluntary placements, believing them to be better than the alternatives.

How to improving Internships and long term Volunteer Work

A number of steps have been suggested to help ensure internships are open, fair and to the benefit of everyone:

  • Removal of financial barriers: The recent Class Ceiling Report recommended that unpaid internships be banned (23). This would help minimise the restrictions to access for those in financially disadvantaged positions. Within environmental conservation full time volunteer posts lasting longer than three months could be paid the minimum wage.
  • Contracts: The Government states that interns should receive a clear contract similar to a formal employment contract (29). Such a contract ensures both parties understand what is expected and what the role entails (29). Maybe as important is the symbolic role of such a contract, which clearly signals the formality of the internship.
  • Certification and references: Recognition of completion of the internships should be offered in the form of certification or a statement detailing the tasks achieved would be most useful. Either a formal written references or stated access to one should be provided (19).
  • Clear end dates: Such contracts should have a clear end date. More generally, people volunteering in any capacity should receive a volunteer agreement. Although volunteer agreements are not legally binding they allow volunteers to understand their rights and responsibilities.
  • Open advertisement: Internships should be advertised, and selection completed in a similar manner as for paid formal employment (23). This ensures that opportunities are available to all.
  • Rating of placements: Websites where organisations are rated on the how they treat volunteers should be widely advertised and interns encouraged to use them (30). Those organisations offering quality internships have nothing to fear.

Reinforcing the basics

Internships offer a range of benefits to participants including the chance to build experience, make contact with potential employers, and do something good to help the environment. However, the organisations offering volunteer opportunities have a responsibility to ensure that interns are not exploited or used as a substitute for paid workers. Interns and long-term volunteers should be provided with a clear contract outlining their role, what they can expect, and clear time limits to the placement period.


  1. Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (2017) Good work: the Taylor review of modern working practices. Accessed online at:
  2. McGuinness, F. and Ward M. (2017) State of the Nation Report by the Social Mobility Commission. Accessed online at:
  3. de Grunfeld T. (2014) End unpaid internships by 2020? No, end them now. Huffington Post. Accessed online at:
  4. Waterson J. (2013) The Worst Examples of Unpaid Internships in Britain. Buzzfeed. Accessed online at:
  5. The Wildlife Trusts (2018) Jobs. Accessed from:
  6. The National Trust (2018) Find a Volunteering Opportunity. Accessed from:
  7. RSPB (2018). Internships. Accessed from:
  8. Personal Communication. Martin Fowlie. Spring 2018.
  9. Peak Ecology (2018). Company Website. Accessed from:
  10. National Council for Voluntary Organisations (2018) Why volunteer? Accessed from:
  11. Bruyere, B. and Rappe, S. (2007) Identifying the motivations of environmental volunteers. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 1, 50(4): 503-16.
  12. The Cabinet Office (2010) Building the Big Society. Accessed from:
  13. VINFORMATIVE (2009) Employer Survey: attitudes to volunteering and impact on career progression. Accessed at:
  14. Do-It.Org (2015) Why do you do it? Accessed at:
  15. Third Sector (2018) Benefits of Volunteering. Accessed from:
  16. Low N. Butt S. Paine E. and Smith Davis J. (2007) Helping out: A national survey of volunteering and charitable giving. London: Cabinet Office.
  17. Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (2013) Minimum wage: work experience and internships. Accessed from:
  18. Trade Union Congress (TUV) (2018) Guide to Internships. Accessed online at:
  19. Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (2013) Minimum wage: work experience and internships. Accessed online from:
  20. Trade Union Congress (TUC) (2018) Rights for Interns App. Accessed from:
  21. Gerada C. (2013) Interns in the Voluntary Sector. UNITE report, London.
  22. The Sutton Trust (2017) Breaking the Class Ceiling Study. Accessed from:
  23. Sheffield City Council Website (2018) Nature Reserves. Accessed online at:
  24. Heritage Lottery Fund (2018) Evaluation. Accessed online at: file:///C:/Users/mark/Desktop/dog_toxo/articles/evaluation_good-practice_guidance_0_2.pdf
  25. Coy P. (2017) Bloomsburg Business Week. Viewpoint. Accessed online at:
  26. Cancer Research U.K. (2018) Internships. Accessed online at:
  27. Department for Work and Pensions (2018) Universal Credit. Your responsibilities. Accessed online at:
  28. Home Office (2005) The volunteering compact code of good practice. London: Home Office.
  29. RateMyPlacement (2018) Accessed online at:
  30. UNITE (2014). Stop the Abuse of Interns. Accessed online at:—campaigns/stop-the-abuse-of-interns/


Mark Walker has taken part in six-month internships including with a national environmental charity where he carried out practical habitat management, and with private environmental consultants. He currently volunteers with his local Air Ambulance. He has volunteered in environmental conservation over three decades

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Walker, Mark “ECOS 39(6): ‘Own Transport Preferred’: Potential problems with long-term volunteering and internships” ECOS vol. 39(6), 2018, British Association of Nature Conservationists,

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