Interns can be a wonderful way to add to staff capacity, but it’s important to be very thoughtful about how to best engage interns. This is especially true when a new organization is starting out and feels understaffed. Adding a huge crew of interns without much staff supervision is usually a mistake because there’s great potential for the interns to be under-supported and therefore ineffective.

First, check with an attorney if you are unsure about the laws which apply to internships. In short, it’s not allowable to hire an unpaid intern to replace paid positions on your staff. Their work must be distinct from the paid positions’ responsibilities. Furthermore, if you’re offering a stipend, you should be in compliance with local minimum wage and other employment laws. And if you’re offering college credit, coordinate early with the university or college partner to establish their financial requirements, timing, and other concerns.

Second, be careful not to think of an intern as someone whose only purpose is to pick up any and everything that comes up. Interns will perform best if they have one or more primary meaningful tasks, which they can learn by doing. They’ll also learn best if you take some time to give them the resources they need to accomplish those jobs. If you toss them a new random thing every day and they’re not trained, interns are unlikely to either learn or to succeed. Like any nonprofit staffer, interns will have to pick up plenty of random tasks. These will happen faster and at a higher level if they’re also vested with some real responsibility.

Finally, be thoughtful and clear about the best things to delegate to each specific intern. Someone new to your work or someone whose communication skills have not yet been tested isn’t a great choice to do your social media posts — an important part of your public presence. On the other hand, you may have a former student of your writing center — whose spelling and grammar you trust and whose knowledge of the organization is spot-on — who would be perfect for such a job. Likewise, be sure you’re learning a bit about each intern before they begin, so you can best set them to work. A background safety check is essential for anyone working with students, of course, but you also want to know their goals in advance. The most effective interns are working to learn something that supports their own future plans, too.