Internships were once considered noble opportunities for any young up-and-comer. Fetching coffees, wiping down the lunch room — all that had its place in the humbling lower echelons of the economy. The knowledge that work was work, and pay was pay at the end of the day could compensate for any lack of long-term security.
But today, companies increasingly rely on unpaid interns to take up that grunt labour at the non-cost of providing experience. The value of said experience, of course, varies from workplace to workplace. But the only assured value of these opportunities to the unpaid interns is metaphorical: A name on a resume, a three minute phone call somewhere down the road.
On a larger scale, however, free labour becomes a problem. If entering the workforce depends on an indefinite pledge to work for free across the board, a new unmanageable factor threatens your future job security: The ability to support yourself without the means to support yourself. Cue parents’ visa cards for those families that can afford it, debt and failed ambitions for those who can’t.
Despite the growing anxiety over this development, some companies have taken a firm, wholehearted step in the wrong direction. Rather than promote more “populist” ways-to-work, they’ve made largely symbolic moves that put jobs further out of reach for the average young plebe. We’re referring to the charity internship auction — a frankenstein of the information economy, marrying lowly unpaid labour with generous philanthropy.
The logic is clear. The rich can and are willing to work for free, and companies are certainly willing to hire them. The problem: A hip, socially-conscious, web-surfing public who deplores free labour. The solution: Throw activism into the mix, divert from the labour problem by addressing another problem completely. Through CharityBuzz, the public get their social consciousness, the wealthy get their entitlement, and the company gets their free labour — cut-and-paste morality that just so happens to work. Charity internship auctions, though controversial, attract far less ill-will than "normal" unpaid labour, even though it's arguably worse for the workforce at large, legitimising an unjust practice.
Can't profitable companies engineer better ways to be charitable than to sell career opportunities in an economy as tense, volatile and disparate as this one? Despite how much has been written against it, privileged free labour in the name of charity endures. The following are ten examples of the most wildly expensive unpaid work opportunities people paid for.
10 Shape Magazine: Estimated $1,500
Shape’s former editor-in-chief offered a two-month unpaid gig at the magazine through CharityBuzz in 2010. One undisclosed bidder secured the opportunity to spend 60 days learning the inner workings of popular fitness publishing. The auction, with an estimated value of $1,500, lasted just over 3 weeks, with the money going to a private women’s liberal arts college in New York City.
9 Signia Wealth: Estimated $2,500
Signia Wealth is inviting a wealthy aspiring wealth-manager into their London office to spend two weeks shaking hands with financiers of all stripes, donating to cancer research in the process. The current CharityBuzz bid rests at $750, but less than a week remains— act now for this exclusive opportunity.
8 The British Conservative Party: £3,500, about $5,600
Not a company per se and certainly not for charity, in 2011 the British Tories offered internships with City hedge funds at £3,000-a-pop to party supporters. It so-happened that the auction took place just weeks after the Cameron government launched its Equality Strategy to “promote diversity, for example through internship schemes… for those who are currently under-represented such as ethnic minorities”.
The Daily Mail reported the Party went to “extraordinary” lengths to conceal the auction, including banning the press. Among the auctioned items: Lot 4, a two-week internship at derivatives-dealer CMC Markets for a £3,000 donation, and Lot 20, a week at Arbuthnot Latham private bank for £3,500.
7 Rolling Stone and Us Weekly Magazine: Estimated $10,000
In 2012, Us Weekly auctioned 2 weeks of hands-on editorial experience at the celebrity gossip magazine for an estimated $5,000 contribution to the David Lynch Foundation. The same year, Rolling Stone auctioned a whole month at the same value, which went to Kristen Ann Carr Fund for cancer research.
But the whopper: A double-internship, two weeks at both magazines, for an estimated $10,000 donation to a Tibetan solidarity charity the same year. Clearly, parent company Wenner Media has embraced the charitable intern in a big way. Rolling Stone since auctioned off another position in 2013, and again this past April for $5,000.
6 Oscar de la Renta, Balenciaga, M Missoni and Valentino: Estimated $10,000
In 2012, four fashion giants came together like benign Power Rangers to
inflate the industry’s haughty reputation change the world. By benefitting education charity Rosie's Theater Kids, bidders with the deepest pockets earned a month working payless for their respective fashion-idols the following summer.
Stay hungry, fashionistas: Balenciaga has held a similar auction every year since.
5 Huffington Post: $13,000 +
Great news for all aspiring writers with half-a-year’s-salary to spare: In 2009 the Huffington Post offered affluent media hopefuls an opportunity to buy a two or three month work opportunity at their choice of Washington or New York offices.
Bids reached at least $13,000 before closing, and the winning sum was paid out to Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. Good cause. Donate the money yourselves, HuffPo, and schedule some interviews.
4 UN-NGO Committee on Human Rights: $22,000
Last year several items went for auction on CharityBuzz to benefit the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, and one of them just seemed unreal: “Inside knowledge of just how the UN really operates…the ultimate internship opportunity for any college or graduate student looking to get their foot in the door!” Six weeks in New York at the United Nation’s UN-NGO Committee on Human Rights, yours now for $22,000.
The media did some probing following the ad’s discovery, and what turned up was confusing at best. The UN denied selling any internship, and according to CharityBuzz, the internship wasn’t actually with the UN, but at the UN in New York City. “I think this is a simple syntax issue,” wrote a CharityBuzz spokesperson. “The UN is both a place and an entity.” After clarifying this publicly, the posting remained as advertised. The auction has since been removed from CharityBuzz’s archives.
3 The Weinstein Company: $26,000 +
Last August, the film production company that brought you Inglourious Basterds, The King’s Speech and Silver Linings Playbook decided to privilege the privileged. Their 3-month internship opportunity in New York City or Los Angeles reached over $26,000 in the final 10 minutes (closing sum not disclosed) for the benefit of Harvard’s professional art theater, the A.R.T. Institute.
Wealthy student pays wealthy Ivy League school for foot in door at wealthy production company — we looked, but couldn’t find this headline anywhere.
2 Vogue: $42,500
“…The opportunity of a lifetime! Just being near her will make you chic,” wrote the CharityBuzz ad. The “her” is Anna Wintour, Vogue’s editor-in-chief. In 2010, bidding for just one week in Vogue’s offices started at $1,000; by close it reached $42,500 and probably topped the average company salary. The money again went to the RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights.
1 DefJam Records and Virgin Group: $85,000
The most expensive internship ever sold on CharityBuzz remains this “ultimate intern experience” giving one ultra-wealthy aspirant 6 unpaid weeks to work between the offices of DefJam Records and Virgin Group.
The former includes meet and lunch with Russell Simmons, the latter a fundraising meet with Sir Richard Branson. It’s not only the most expensive internship ever sold, but the 39th most expensive item in CharityBuzz’s larger inventory history, blurring the lines between wealth and work merit in the name of justice and human rights.