‘Returnships’: how the cousin of internships is about giving back

This column is part of an occasional series about how you, too, can make a difference. It is written by the head of our partner organization UniversalGiving, which helps people give and volunteer in more than 100 countries.

When I was growing up, you might have had an internship or two. It was interesting to dip your toes into the professional world, but you didn’t really have to.

Today, we are very strategic. Internships are a must if you want to show you have business experience and get a job after graduation.

Why We Wrote This

For those looking to make a midcareer change or reenter the workforce after focusing on family, a returnship can offer the chance to make more of a difference.

And now there are also “returnships,” which are a must if you are trying to switch careers or explore a new passion.

So what’s the difference between an internship and returnship? An internship is usually for those ages 15 to 25. They can be serving at a nonprofit that supports animal rights, a homeless shelter, a law firm, an investment bank, a dot-com start-up, or a musical society.

Returnships are for those who have at least eight to 10 years of experience. They might be returning to the workforce from paternity or maternity leave. They might be returning after raising kids for four, eight, or 20 years. They’re ready to get back to working and to making a difference.

Returnships are also for midcareer professionals who are looking for a change. They feel their current position has become stale and want to try something new. They might want to learn new skills. This can be scary and yet be such an important part of life.

Those who are most proactive want to not just change careers but also dive into a more meaningful life.

If a returnship sounds like something you’d like to explore, here’s the next honest step. It’s important to reassess what you value and how you can best contribute. Begin by asking yourself questions: “What do I really love to do? What would I feel good about doing? What would make me jump out of bed in the morning?” And then, “What skills do I have that can help realize this personal vision?” Passion, balanced with practicality, is what will be most helpful to you as well as our communities.

For many people thinking about a returnship, it’s an opportunity to try the nonprofit realm – fertile ground for making a difference.

A decision to move into the nonprofit world must come from the head and the heart. It’s a true balance. Most people think one needs to have passion for and loyalty to a cause, and you do. But one must also have a strong desire for effective business planning and operations to ensure that the product, in this case service to the community, is delivered successfully.

At the same time, one can’t be “all business.” We are compassionately serving others who are often in dire circumstances, revolving around hunger, jobs, education, and health. At UniversalGiving, we are helping people who live on $800 annually, which some estimate to be half the world.

It’s wrong to get into a nonprofit if you think it’s a cushy job or comes with fewer demands. Your responsibility increases. Fundraising is tough. And if you fail to deliver, in many cases you are dealing with people’s lives.

Internships and returnships have filled a great hole in our world. They provide professional opportunities, personal growth, the development of new skills, and even a sense of home. Don’t miss out on giving back in this strategic and heartfelt way.

Pamela Hawley is the founder and chief executive officer of UniversalGiving. She is a recipient of the Jefferson Award – the Nobel Prize of community service. She also writes the blog “Living and Giving.”

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