An internship lasting 12 weeks, involving real work and paying only travel and lunch expenses has been awarded the prestigious “Graduate Internship of the Year” prize by the National Council for Work Experience.

Graduate Fog was shocked to receive a press release from children’s charity Barnardo’s, proudly announcing their win in the category of organisations with more than 250 employees. Nadia Bunyan, Head of Workforce Development for Barnardo’s said:

“We are pleased the Barnardo’s intern scheme has been recognised as one of the best as we pride ourselves in providing career opportunities for all young people.

“Intern programmes benefit both the individual and the organisation. Our scheme provides interns with high quality work experience which allows them to make a valuable and lasting contribution to Barnardo’s and also gives them the chance to develop the skills and confidence to gain meaningful employment.”

While Barnardo’s undoubtedly does some fantastic work, we have been concerned for some time that they are one of the many big charities which is taking advantage of young, unpaid labour by graduates desperate for experience, and using this as a way to keep their staff costs low.

The press release didn’t specify the length of the internship or what work was involved, so we emailed Barnardo’s for more details. A spokesperson told us:

“The graduate internships are a 12 week placement; we pay travel expenses and give a lunch allowance.”

When we asked what sort of tasks the intern might be given and what their working hours are, we were told:

“1. In terms of working hours — the scheme is flexible as some students may have part-time jobs or they may l have to travel from far. So all hours vary from student to student.

“2. Interns work along side colleagues assisting in live campaigns, fundraising, planning, research or volunteering — this means actually doing research, scanning for media stories if in the media team, planning fundraising initiatives or assisting in events.”

We then wrote to the National Council for Work Experience:

To: National Council for Work Experience
From: Graduate Fog
Monday 2 April, 1.01pm

I’d like to ask for some more info about the 2012 NCWE Awards please. My name is Tanya de Grunwald and I am the founder of the graduate careers website Graduate Fog.

In particular, I am interested to see that Barnardo’s has won the award for Best Graduate Internship (more than 250 employees), when one of their representatives has just confirmed to me that their 12-week placements (which appear to involve real work) are unpaid apart from expenses.

While I understand that this is within the law, it is a highly controversial point among my users that charities are allowed to use unpaid interns. Many graduates feel that charities are exploiting a legal loophole – originally designed to protect genuine volunteering – in order to cut staff costs and gain unlimited free labour from young workers who are desperate for experience. As such, I would expect the vast majority of my readers to be extremely irritated that unpaid placements in any sector are being held up as an example of best practice. Perhaps you could offer them an explanation?

Also, can you clarify what the criteria are for the awards across the categories? In particular, I am interested to know whether all nominees (and winners) within the private sector must pay their interns at least the minimum wage, in line with the law?

With thanks


This morning, I received this:

To: Graduate Fog
From: National Council of Work Experience
Wednesday 4 April, 10.48am

Thanks for your query and apologies for the delay — it’s my first day in the office since Thursday so just picked this up, but hopefully we’re not too late to give you some more information on the awards.

As well as from employers, nominations also come from interns and careers advisors. In fact students/graduates and careers advisors make up the majority of the entries we receive.

The Awards are independently shortlisted and judged by a team which spans university careers advisors, past interns and employers so that there are views from all perspectives.

The decision is based on the calibre of the schemes and covers set criteria, which includes company and student benefits, skills development, support and why a scheme is exceptional.

We ensure that winners and shortlisted organisations pay their interns within the boundaries of the law.
The Awards reward exceptional schemes and here are some of the judges comments for Barnardo’s:

“Wow. That’s just brilliant. The company is both innovative and flexible and this is reflected in the opportunities they offer.”

Three key skills stood out to our judges; confidence, prioritisation and negotiation. “It is critical that graduates have these skills in the current climate.”

“A high-quality placement overall, which scored consistently high throughout the various ‘must-haves’ for an internship. It is strongly aligned with their organisation objectives.”

“The placement had a clear quality control process in place with constant feedback. It is a well-executed scheme.”

“There is a very diverse range of opportunities available with this placement and students were able to learn a great deal of core competencies.”

The judges liked the concept of their ‘Development Board’ where students from each scheme work together to provide peer support and organise a peer-led fundraising event.

The judges were impressed that the organisation offered pastoral support: “it is made explicit that support is there in any form that it is needed.”

I hope this helps.
Best wishes

We have no doubt that the placements run by Barnardo’s are helpful to some of those lucky enough to be able to afford to do them. But what about those who can’t afford to work for free for 12 weeks? Is it fair that they are blocked from these opportunities? And aren’t Barnardo’s normalising the practice of unpaid internships, which will inevitably mean that future interns will find themselves working for longer and longer unpaid, with less chance of a job at the end of their internship (as we have witnessed in industries where unpaid internships have been running for years, including fashion, media and politics)?

Thanks to a loophole in the minimum wage law originally designed to protect genuine volunteering, it is currently not illegal for charities like Barnardo’s to have unpaid interns. In fact, they can have as many as they like, working for as long as they like.

However, there is grave concern that the spread of unpaid internships in the charity sector is exploiting young people – and excluding those who can’t afford to intern for free from even having a shot at a career in this sector. In February, Labour MP Hazel Blears told the TUC that she would be proposing a ten-minute bill in the House of Commons to close this loophole, as it was clearly wrong that charities are effectively being gifted an unlimited supply of free admin support, in the form of graduates so desperate for experience they are willing to work for nothing.

Graduate Fog is also extremely concerned about the role of the National Council for Work Experience. Frankly, what are they thinking of giving out awards to organisations that don’t pay their interns? Can anybody tell us more about the NCWE? The email address for their press office ends with, so presumably they are in some way part of Prospects, the supposedly ‘official’ graduate careers advice website? The very same website which is endorsed and advertised by pretty much every university in the country? Whose side are these people on, exactly?

*Should unpaid internships be winning awards?
Is it right that Barnardo’s can claim to run one of the best internships in the country, when it is unpaid? Is it enough that the National Council for Work Experience insists that because unpaid charity internships are within the law, they are eligible for winning awards? Or is this a sign that the NCWE is out of touch with the very issue it is supposed to be an expert on – and with the young people it is supposed to be protecting?

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