Returnships: A win-win in the nonprofit sector?

Amy Potthast served as Idealist’s Director of Service and Graduate Education Programs until 2011. Read more of her work at

People face challenges in returning to work after a career break – especially parents of young children. The resume gap, rusty job skills (real and perceived), and the cost of childcare during the job search process are just a few of the bumps in the road.


On-ramp photo by Scott Hingst (Flickr)

Enter the Returnship

Returnships are part-time, paid internships for people “on-ramping” after a voluntary career break – not so much looking to launch their career as to jump back in. The concept offers these benefits:

  • The pay helps transitioning parents offset the costs of childcare
  • The professional experience allows them to renew and update work skills and habits, and add something recent to their resumes
  • The schedule gives them and their families time to adjust to a new normal at home
  • And the host organization’s supportive parenting culture offers career relaunchers a soft landing.

Family Forward Oregon, a nonprofit that advocates for a more family-friendly economy in my state, is currently offering two six-month Returnships that focus on fundraising and event planning.

According to Sharon Bernstein, the organization’s co-founder, one of the trickiest aspects of navigating the career transition when you have small children at home is setting up affordable, high-quality childcare during the job search process – before a pay check starts coming in. The problem is tougher with more than one child (greater expense; harder to find another stay-at-home parent to swap childcare with; etc.). While the Returnship stipend may not fully cover childcare costs, it helps.

Different from an internship

What distinguishes Returnships from paid internships may be more in branding and attitude than substance. Good internships, after all, are more about the intern’s educational needs than the organization’s productivity.

But the name Returnship invites a different segment of the intern market to apply; and organizations with cultures (not just policies) supportive of parenting are beacons of light for modern parents who constantly feel the double tug of family and work.

Is it time for more nonprofits to embrace the idea?

Returnships seem to have more of a history in the business sector. The Sara Lee company pioneered the concept which is now simply integrated into the company’s hiring process. Goldman Sachs has also developed a Returnship program.

For the nonprofit host, Returnships could attract people who were once established in their professional roles and may bring more expertise than a less-experienced intern. Returnships could also offer organizations a way to connect with a broader, more diverse workforce—highly ambitious people who may want to work part-time—ideal for some nonprofits looking for top talent on a tight budget.

Have you participated in a Returnship (even if it wasn’t called that)? Does your nonprofit offer opportunities for people on-ramping after a voluntary career break?

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