Paid internships: Entering the human rights NGO sector

Ben Smith, Legal Research Intern at the Equal Rights Trust

I expected competition for jobs in human rights to be tough but it was only when I graduated that I realised quite how difficult it was to break into the sector. I had gained a lot academically – I had an undergraduate degree in Law from Oxford University and a Master of Laws from University College London – but this didn’t seem to be enough when applying for jobs with human rights NGOs. I tried to stay positive and kept putting in applications but the feedback I got again and again was that while I was well qualified, there was always someone with more experience. Though I had lots of pro bono experience and legal experience in other sectors, the organisations I was applying to wanted direct experience in the field.

The only options I saw to gain that experience were internships, which were generally unpaid. It was frustrating to devote so much time academically to human rights only to find that a career is out of reach unless you have the financial means to work in unpaid lengthy internships. Like many other graduates, and particularly as I didn’t have roots in London, this wasn’t an option for me.

In August 2015 I saw the position advertised for Legal Research Interns with the Equal Rights Trust which offered a needs-based grant for applicants. The Trust is an international organisation which focuses on advancing equality and non-discrimination worldwide – an area I had looked at extensively during my studies and a keen interest of mine. I jumped at the chance to apply as the internship seemed like the perfect next step – and one that was accessible to me. I was offered the post in August, after which I submitted an application for the grant (which was accepted) and I started working with the Trust in September.

What sets this internship apart from others is that the tasks I’ve carried out have been incredibly varied and I’ve had the opportunity to work across the full range of work the Trust does, including advocacy, litigation and fundraising. I’ve lost track of the number of countries I’ve been involved with, I think it must be over 20 already, which is testament to the breadth of work the Trust does. It has been an incredible chance to broaden my horizons and expand my knowledge of equality and non-discrimination law.

I’ve had the opportunity to take on genuine responsibility in my position and develop important skills – you’re not just making tea and doing photocopying, but carrying out work that has a real impact. Recently, I researched and prepared a first draft of the Trust’s submissions in a case we are intervening in before the European Court of Human Rights. This was a huge task and it was a privilege to be trusted with it.

I think the level of responsibility we are given is due in part to the Trust’s paid internship scheme – a lot of NGOs are keen to take on interns who will work for free but who aren’t always best placed to take on a high level of responsibility or work on technical outputs. This can also be problematic as interns will often leave before their placement ends. In this sense I think the scheme is a “win-win” for the Trust and for the interns.

It will be sad to leave the Trust in spring as my internship comes to an end, but I know that if my legal career takes me away from human rights work, I will be able to put the skills I’ve developed as an intern to good use.

On 23 February the Trust launched a campaign – the Bob Hepple Memorial Fund – to help others like me who would be struggling to enter the sector were it not for paid internship and fellowship placements. Through the campaign the Trust has set itself a minimum target to raise of £1,000 which could support a needs based grant for an intern for approximately six weeks. If it meets its desired target of £10,000 it could support four interns and a fellow for three months.

I’ve learned an enormous amount as an intern and it has given me a real career boost, so I hope the campaign is not only a great success but that it will be replicated elsewhere in the sector to help more people pursue their ambition.

One thought on “Paid internships: Entering the human rights NGO sector

  1. Very much in agreement about the importance of paid internships. So many people just cannot afford to work for free, or end up having to work around doing a part-time internship which, at least from my experience, can be stressful. I’m now doing a paid internship at the organisation Justice, which not only pays but pays the London Living Wage (details of the internship can be found here:http://justice.org.uk/about-us/vacancies/internships-externships/). I’ve found that there is a qualitative difference between this role and previous intern roles in terms of having more responsibility and the breadth of work I am able to be involved with (which has all been very interesting). Hopefully other human rights NGOs can start moving more towards this model.

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