How to stay motivated with an Unpaid Internship


A young person recently reached out in our professional forum asking: “Is it legal for a funded NGO not to pay a stipend for internship/volunteer positions? I badly need advice as I need work experience yet I also need to survive.” So here’s my advice to him and to you.

The truth is that earnings & value go hand in hand. One must be an established expert in each area, to then qualify for pay by solving problems for a given organization. An internship position is ideally an opportunity to build value, and at this time, there is no basis to receive pay. However, most importantly, my counsel to young people in Africa is attitude. The workplace should not be seen as a place to “make money”, rather it should be seen as a place to offer value by solving problems. This is the attitude to bring to a workplace even when one gets a job. So should you do an unpaid internship? What are the benefits of working for free?

My Personal Experience

When I was younger, I got an unpaid internship in an NGO. The work was a lot with no pay. But what I was gaining was an opportunity to get hands-on training on technical aspects. It is these experiences that I used to apply for a scholarship that took me to places to date. So once again, an internship is an opportunity to build value to then be in a position to get paid. I will therefore encourage every young person to change his attitude and be thankful for the opportunity to build value, to get skills, that will then prepare them for earning in future. And should they get a job in future, it should not be seen as an opportunity to “make money”, but rather an opportunity to offer solutions.

I say this because one thing we need to appreciate about our continent is that we are a continent that equates value to material and more so money. Someone’s value in society is proportional to how heavy their pocket is. This is the reason that even those who get employed, most will do the bare minimum to enable them to continue getting a paycheque. Most people will put their best foot forward during an interview. Do all they can to get a job. But once they settle in, they forget all they promised in the interview to go the extra mile, and quickly settle into the comfort zone of doing the bare minimum. This is part of the reason we are stuck as a continent. All those who occupy different work positions are satisfied with doing the bare minimum. They get to the office in the morning, looking forward to when the day will end. They start a new year, looking forward to their next leave. Some go as low as disrespecting their bosses because they think they have made new friends in the workplace and can “survive” the storms of the workplace because of some connections. People will work not selflessly to solve problems and touch many lives out there, but simply to get a payment. People will strive for a promotion simply because it comes with bigger perks, not a bigger opportunity to touch more lives. But what we forget is that these materials are actually supposed to be a natural consequence of offering value, solving problems and touching many lives. We forget that gain is not always material, but can come in the form of improved skills, building a better name, connecting with more people, all of which will end up in material opportunities as a natural by-product. So we have to change our attitudes as Africans, and divest from materialism and prioritize offering & perfecting solutions that touch many lives.

We, therefore, need an attitude and mindset change that gravitates towards the following:

First, Life is not a celebration as we have been conditioned to think and expect, but rather a responsibility to offer solutions that touch many lives. Forge selfless collaboration with your peers of complementary abilities and together push in that direction. Become a “job creator” not a “job seeker”. We must stop expecting things to be easy. This is what each of us must engrain in our minds on a very serious note going forward. Anything less and the sorry state will persist.

Second, Offer value. I have asked myself one question and no one has ever answered me satisfactorily. And that question is –  Why do we think that others need to come and sort out our challenges? That we need help always? This is indeed one big fallacy in our minds that has constrained us, in the box of dependency. Lest we forget, God is no respecter of persons. The message then is simple – the only thing that will make you stand out is value. And the only quantifier of this value is our ability in solving problems. Learn a new skill. In this age of ubiquitous internet connectivity, one can get free courses and material online. You can also use social media to connect with like-minded people online and influence each other towards real solutions, not empty gossip, and time-wasting online.

Third, Become Passionate. I call passion the currency of now. It is the fuel that moves ideas into real-life solutions. It is what keeps one going, what fuels persistence and perseverance until success is achieved. But what ignites passion in the first place? It is being attached to a course greater than an individual. Passion is automatically ignited in anyone who makes the preoccupation of their mind, achieving an ambition that is greater than themselves. One who makes it the preoccupation of their mind, to do something that benefits others not themselves. This will make you realize one thing – that we were not created to indulge ourselves, but rather to serve others.  Look to a course that exceeds yourself, and it will help to not only refine your character but fire up your passion, which is the only currency for success.

Fourth,  Cultivate an Attitude of Appreciation. I have seen many and heard of many, who will beg to be assisted. But once they get what they want, they quickly forget and retreat to their comfort zones. Always aim to live a mark and constantly improve and appreciate those who sacrifice their time to guide you. Always go the extra mile. Volunteer to take new extra responsibilities. You who are looking for work, apply to offer a solution, instead of always applying for jobs. Volunteer and write a promotional piece about an organization you are aspiring to join, not only sending job-seeking mails. It is such acts of selflessness and appreciation and a positive work attitude that make one stand out.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the institution with which he is affiliated.

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