The Secret Advantage of Unpaid Internships


If there is one place where I saw the “business unit manifesto” adding enormous value to young professionals, it’s unpaid internships.

As a part of my extensive work with internship programs in Israel, such as Masa Israel JourneyOnward Israel, Gap-year programs and others, I get to meet, mentor, advice, employ and speak to many young professionals, who are coming for programs that provide them with unpaid internships. Meaning, although they are eligible to get financial grants from their programs, they effectively work for free.

But, that’s exactly their leverage. And when they realize it by thinking and acting like business units, they can uncover secret advantages, and turn their “internship experience” into a “career opportunity.” This post explains how.

Unpaid internship is a reverse transaction

When you take a paid internship, it’s kind of like a job. Meaning, it’s the same transaction rules. Your employers determine the output of your work (your tasks, responsibly, authority etc), since they provide the input (your pay). Thus, they control the transaction rules and terms (“we request those outputs, and are willing to provide these inputs in return“). You can accept it, reject it, or try and negotiate the input – but hardly the output. You don’t get to negotiate the tasks, responsibly, authority etc, since it’s the employers who demand it to be done. You are selling your time, effort, skills and experience – in order to do what they request, according to their needs. You agree to this, in exchange for two kinds of inputs: payment (just like a regular job), and professional development (hence, “internship”).

For some reason, many apply the same logic for unpaid internships as well. Many think that since employers are willing to accept unpaid interns, they control the transaction rules and terms. Therefore, as an unpaid intern, you also expect the employer to determine desired outputs. But you do not align them to any inputs.

And I believe this to be wrong, since, it is actually a reverse transaction! You are the one who controls both the transaction rules and terms.

From an economic point of view, one could claim that a paid internship, like any job, is a transaction driven by demand. Therefore, the demand side (employers, or according to the “business unit manifesto” – customers) sets the needs (work to be done), and the value for addressing those needs (price for the work – your pay). However, an unpaid internship, is a transaction driven by supply. Therefore, the supply side (you, unpaid interns, who some may even see as “volunteers”, but according to the “business unit manifesto” – you are still business units) offers potential outputs, expecting no financial input in return, and sets the non-financial value for the free help.

You have the leverage

Therefore, when you are taking an unpaid internship (meaning, you are willing to work for no financial input), you who control both alternative inputs and negotiate the outputs. You control the transaction rules and terms. You have the leverage!

Control the inputs – Since the employer does not have to provide any financial input, you can negotiate alternative inputs, according to your career and development needs. Once you determine your long, mid and sort-term goals, and communicate them effectively with your employer, you can determine and request particular desired inputs by them, such as what would you like your recommendation letter to have, which connections and knowledge would you like to develop and obtain, etc. You set that as the expected input, in exchange for the output. It is the non-financial input you are willing to work for, for free. Your control.

Control the outputs– Since you are willing to provide outputs for no financial inputs, you can negotiate the outputs themselves! You could actually take partial control over your tasks, responsibly, authority, who do you work with in the office, etc – something that is quite hard for a paid-intern (or employee) to do. For you, as an unpaid intern, it is much easier to go after the “gold” which is hidden in the “gray.” These are the outputs you are interested in producing, which you are willing to work for free for, receiving only non-financial inputs in return. Your control.

So, here are my tips for unpaid interns, in Israel and beyond:

  1. Understand that even as an unpaid intern, you are still a business unit.
  2. Realize that an unpaid internship is a reverse transaction.
  3. Define your long, mid and short-term goals, which will help you understand what are your desired inputs and outputs for this transaction.
  4. Look for desired outputs you are interested in, inside the office environment (or, according to the “business unit manifesto” – the market)! Look for the “gold” in the “gray.”
  5. As an unpaid intern, communicate your desired non-financial inputs, and desired outputs you want to produce. Help your customer understand the transaction.
  6. Take the ownership, and request periodical “status meetings” with your boss (customer, according to the business unit manifesto), to re-coordinate expectations. Make sure inputs and outputs are aligned, and that the transaction continues to be valuable for both sides along the way.

Own, control and manage the transaction. You have the leverage. That’s the secret advantage of unpaid internships.

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PS: If you think this is only true for unpaid internships – watch this “Why You Should Work for Free” clip, with Gary Vaynerchuck and Ryan Serhant (Jump to 3:21):

About the Author
Assaf is passionate about promoting business in and with Israel, helping and mentoring entrepreneurs, advising young professionals with career planning and self-fulfillment, and more. Assaf acts as a brand ambassador of Israel as 'Start-Up Nation', speaking to thousands of businessmen, investors, entrepreneurs, young professionals, students and others, both in Israel and around the world. Assaf also works as a business development and marketing consultant to Israeli start-ups and others.
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