08/08/2011 10:47 am ET Updated Oct 08, 2011

The Power of Interns

In my last post, I briefly introduced Minga, the organization my friends and I founded in order to combat the global child sex trade by harnessing the power of teens. Since our first meetings five years ago in a living room full of 14-year-olds, Minga's leaders quickly learned how to drive our organization forward on an astonishingly low budget. As a 19-year-old rising Harvard sophomore, until now I've run Minga without any major exposure to formal management, recruiting, human resources, or even leadership training. But I learned along the way. The key to making our organization and other organizations like Minga thrive is having the right team of people.

Building an effective team starts with attracting and recognizing talent. Minga received nearly 30 intern applications for ten spots on its summer team. Our ten-week internship program for high school, undergraduate, and graduate students is unpaid. Harnessing intern power begins with identifying potential. When I review applications and conduct phone screens, I look for candidates who are outstanding writers, unusually articulate, can think through a McKinsey Consulting sample case question, are outgoing and bold, and above all, those who are passionate team players. Finding the right people is essential, but it is the leader's responsibility to make a team of interns into all they can possibly be. The following tips can help you engage young people in your organization, whether it is for-profit or not-for-profit, in a way that will inspire them to make contributions that rival those of your paid staff.

1. Be clear and honest during the selection process
Young people at the high school and college level want to assess their opportunities. They want to understand exactly what they will be achieving by joining your team. Be sure to convey your real expectations, personality, leadership style, and goals. If the internship is going to involve getting coffee, filing papers, or entering data, be up front about those more menial tasks too. If all your internship position offers is menial tasks, some students will still likely apply for it, but you are missing out on the talent, perspective, and creativity young people have to offer.

2. Give them homework before they begin
Your interns should know everything about your organization. They should be able to quickly recall specific stories, achievements, and organizational language. Beyond knowing your brand and mission, your interns should think with the same vigor and vibrancy of your more seasoned team members. Give them access to articles, case studies, blogs, video content, websites, and your other team members. Ask them not only to read and discuss their findings, but also to apply their insights to hypothetical situations, to brainstorm how specific approaches and strategies could improve the way your organization operates, or to teach their new knowledge to another intern.

3. Give structure and autonomy
Before you invite interns to join your team, have a plan of what projects they will work on. I began by asking, "what needs to be done?" Create a comprehensive plan that divides your projects into weekly mini-tasks. I decided to have our interns work in teams. Since our team is located throughout the northeast, most of our meetings are done virtually. At Minga, our leaders oversee teams of two to three interns. These teams focus on one task each week. Teams receive a detailed preparation packet that explains the task for that week, its importance, the expected deliverable, and a list of resources that will be useful starting points for completing the task. How teams communicate, delegate, and present their work each week is entirely up to them. Every Friday, teams present their accomplishments, ask for input, and make recommendations to the entire Minga group.

4. Regularly solicit feedback
Keeping your interns motivated and productive requires listening to them. Provide regular opportunities for each intern to give feedback to your organization's leadership. Then, incorporate their suggestions into the program. By asking for any concerns upfront, you prevent any significant conflicts from emerging. Be sure not to deviate from your feedback plan even if every intern reports nothing could be better. The second that impression changes you want to know about it and to be able to respond.

5. Recognize that their time is valuable
Every intern participating in your organization is there by choice. Make sure all meetings and communications do not waste their time. You should spend time creating agendas for meetings, selecting relevant content to present to your interns, and connecting with your staff members before meetings. Offer them new knowledge and experiences at your meetings. At Minga meetings, our interns learn about organizational topics from branding to strategic thinking to conflict management. We practice our public speaking, networking, and creative thinking skills.

6. Acknowledge achievement
When your interns perform - and if you create a great program, they will - recognize their achievements. In three weeks, four of our interns brought in nearly $3,000 worth of donated items for Minga's current online Action Auction. Our college student web and graphic designer rebuilt our website, which will launch in the coming week,in just one month. Recognizing achievement is simple - give shout outs on social media sites, at meetings, or in emails. You can even offer high-achievers the chance to share how they accomplished what they did with your entire team. Rewarding your interns for their contributions does not have to be expensive or time consuming; it just needs to be done thoughtfully and often.

Interested in learning more? Come intern with Minga this fall (all ages are welcome). Send your resume to