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Blair Hickman: ‘Lean In’ Nonprofit Called For an Unpaid Intern

August 16, 2013

Though not illegal, Sheryl Sandberg's 'Lean In' organization is accused of exploiting women by offering an unpaid internship.

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Image from Flickr via World Economic Forum

By Blair Hickman
By arrangement with ProPublica

A top editor at Lean In, the nonprofit offshoot of Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s book about empowering women to achieve their goals, has come under fire for seeking an unpaid intern.

And though many online questioned the ethics of the position, it would have been perfectly legal for the nonprofit to do so.

Jessica Bennett, Lean In’s Editor-at-Large, posted on Facebook yesterday: “Wanted: editorial intern, to work with our editor (me) in New York. Part-time, unpaid, must be HIGHLY organized with editorial and social chops and able to commit to a regular schedule through end of year. Design and web skills a plus! HIT ME UP. Start date ASAP.”

The public was less than pleased. Noting that the unpaid position seemed to conflict with the organization’s mission to help women “pursue their ambitions,” over 200 people replied to Bennett’s post, the bulk of them saying the organization should pony up:

“By restricting it to those who can afford to have done all that and live in NYC without pay on a permanent position, you excluded an awful a lot of people, namely those with less possessions and women included. Your medium and behavior does not meet the message—and that is a tremendous shame.”—Sofia Diogo Mateius
“Unpaid work, be it internships for young women or volunteer positions for older moms, is exploitive. Shame on you lean in. Pay up.”—Michele Morris
“Have to agree, the message is, at best, mixed, here. What you are “offering” and what the organization supposedly stands for, stand in contrast.”—Shawn Eggers Gypsea

Within a few hours of her original post, Bennett clarified that she was indeed looking for a volunteer, not an unpaid intern.

It’s worth noting that three-quarters of unpaid interns are women, according to a recent study.

But despite the online uproar, Lean In is likely not under any legal obligation to pay their interns—because Lean In is a nonprofit, any unpaid interns would be deemed “generally permissible” under federal guidelines issued by the Department of Labor.

Within a few hours of her original post, Bennett clarified that she was indeed looking for a volunteer, not an unpaid intern. “Since I joined Lean In, many people have reached out asking if they can volunteer—and specifically, intern. This was MY post, looking for a volunteer to help me in New York. LOTS of nonprofits accept volunteers. This was NOT an official Lean In job posting. Sorry for the confusion.”

Lean In spokeswoman Andrea Saul also sent us a statement emphasizing that the opening was a volunteer position.

“LeanIn.Org, like many nonprofits, has enjoyed the participation of some part-time volunteers to help us advance our education and peer support programs,” Saul said.

We have reached out to Bennett, and will update this post if she responds.

Update: Lean In Pledges to Establish Paid Internship Program

Late Thursday, Lean In president Rachel Thomas posted a statement on Facebook, noting that while the organization has worked with volunteers in the past, the position in question “doesn’t fall within LeanIn.Org’s definition of ‘volunteer.’”

“As a startup, we haven’t had a formal internship program,” she continued. “Moving forward we plan to, and it will be paid.”

When asked what the difference is between an unpaid intern and a volunteer, professor of labor law David Yamada laughed. “If I had the answer to that, I could be a sitting federal judge.”

The difference between an unpaid intern and a volunteer at a nonprofit is simply a complicated issue, Yamada said.

“I don’t think anyone thought about this when the law was being drafted. Internships weren’t a big deal in the 1930s when they were drafting this statute. Now the intern economy is raising questions that weren’t an issue before,” he said.

CORRECTION: This post has been corrected to note that federal guidelines for unpaid interns at nonprofits are issued by the Department of Labor, not contained in the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Blair Hickman is ProPublica’s community editor. Previously, she led online editorial and outreach strategy for Dowser Media. Prior to that, she was a multimedia assistant for the PBS series “Women, War & Peace” and a writer for Mediaite, focusing on news and emerging media. She’s contributed content to a range of publications, including Jezebel, the New York Daily News and Patch. Hickman is a graduate of NYU’s Journalism’s Studio20 and Brown University’s Nonfiction Writing program.

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