Like many nonprofits, Seattle Opera has a robust and longstanding internship program. Talented individuals come to us in every department—from costumes, to development, to education, to finance, to production—and some even return to work with us if a position opens up. We recently spoke to several of our directors and several of our former interns who now work for the company to ask for their advice. How can you make the most of an internship at a nonprofit arts organization? Here are their thoughts:
1. Come with an objective
What do you want to learn? Knowing your goal will help your supervisor to create a suitable plan. Be sure to communicate your goals up front and during your orientation. Everyone involved will want your time with the company to be mutually beneficial. Think carefully about why you want to spend time with a particular organization and in a particular department. Think about your overall career path. Where does the internship fit on that path? Stating your goals will also be a good way to be sure your goals and the offerings of the internship line up.
2. Be a great colleague
Does this go without saying? For that period of time that you work for the company, be an excellent employee. Be on time. Be great to work with. Show genuine interest in your colleagues and what they might teach you. In some ways the internship can serve as an extended interview. If a job opens up, your colleagues will think back on whether or not you were dependable, but also whether they enjoyed working with you.
3. Come ready to work
Nonprofits are typically hives of activity and oftentimes it’s all hands on deck. Having a clear work plan will keep you from making copies all day long, but doing small tasks often does come with the territory for everyone—from directors to new hires.
4. Get a bird’s eye view
In every organization there are the small day-to-day tasks that need to get done, and there is also a big master calendar that the organization has been working on one year or maybe many years out. There is a constant balancing of the pressing needs of the day and the pick-up-your head and look to the future needs. Try to get a sense of both. One way to get a bird’s eye view is to attend department meetings. Ask to attend them. You may even want to attend meetings of departments that are outside the assigned realm of your internship. You may not understand everything that is going on, but you will see how the organization “thinks” and how they set goals. See how your work and your department fits into the bigger picture. By doing this you’ll gain a better sense of how you can see your own interests fitting into this bigger picture.
5. Be an engaged observer
It’s important to be gracious and always willing to lend a hand, but do so while always observing those around you. It will teach you a lot about the types of people and organizations that inspire you. You may even want to ask if it’s appropriate to “shadow” someone at a show or an event, in which case your purpose for attending would be solely to observe.
6. Request an informational interview
During your internship, you may meet someone who has your dream job. Find out how that person got there. Request an informational interview. What prior positions has she held in that company or others? What decisions led her to this point? And don’t be afraid to branch out from the department you are interning in.
At some point in your internship, it’s a good idea to check in with your supervisor. Look at the plan you started with when you stated your goals. Are you sticking to your plan? Have you seen all that you wanted to see? Or are there still a few things left on the wish-list.
8. Request a formal evaluation
This falls in the category of thinking “beyond” the internship. You could get helpful feedback that you could learn from and carry forward. When you are applying for jobs down the line, you may want your supervisor to give you a glowing reference. If your supervisor has her notes on hand from her formal evaluation, she will be able to give you a detailed and compelling reference.
9. Keep in touch
Of course you can’t be pestering your supervisor every week, but make sure your supervisor knows your goals after your internship and how she can get in touch with you. You never know. If a job doesn’t open up at your particular organization, your supervisor may hear about a job at another nonprofit that you’d be well suited for. If she knows how to send that job along to you, you may be on your way.