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Internships versus Volunteering – 5 ways to tell the difference

One of the most common questions we’re asked by our member organisations with a role to fill is if there is a difference between internships and volunteer roles.

The answer is a resounding yes.

The Centre’s Volunteer Referral Service Manager, Avril Samuels, said it is important for member organisations to know the difference between an internship and a volunteer placement because there can be legal consequences if a role as incorrectly advertised as an internship.

“The area of internships is a complex, often grey area, but it is important to take time to ask yourself five key questions about the role will help you define it,” Avril said

“Importantly, the terms aren’t interchangeable. An organisation can’t call a volunteer role an internship simply because they think it sounds more appealing.

“If in doubt, our Volunteer Referral Service will always advise members if we believe a role has been incorrectly defined so we are always in keeping with best practice.”

Here are our top five tips to tell the difference between internships and volunteering.


  1. A formal work experience arrangement that is part of an education or training course where the student needs to gain experience in a particular occupation or industry
  2. Always a short term arrangement
  3. Provides students with skills to help them transition from study to work
  4. The work performed is not measured by productive activities
  5. The volunteer, not the organisation, is the chief beneficiary of the  arrangement

Volunteering Roles

  • A volunteer is someone who works unpaid for the main purpose of benefitting someone else
  • Best practice for volunteering dictates that a volunteer role should not exceed 16 hours per week on a long term basis
  • No legal contract binds a volunteer to perform work or attend the workplace
  • No pay is provided for the work performed

“The good news is that as long as you know that there is a difference between internships and volunteering, it’s pretty easy to tell the difference once you consider the purpose of the arrangement and who gets the main benefit.”

More information can be found on following websites:

Work Experience and Internships

Unpaid Work

Internships and Unpaid Work – update (August 2014)