Cheri Voisine

The Socially Responsible Intern Surplus

If only the corporate and NGO BoP market investment matched the degree to which ambitious, smart and inspired MBA students were willing to work for it. If the number of applicants is any indication, 2009 seems to have a surplus of MBA and other highly-qualified interns.

If you do not have exposure to this annual process, January through March is open season on intern hunting. Strategically placed ads will garner you cleanly formatted resumes and cover letters, all strikingly similar in form and content with consistent references to personal drive, a love of reading and a passion for your business.

The economic downturn may be just the incentive needed for students to seek the edge that comes with a high-profile internship in lieu of a summer road trip. Or perhaps MBA students who formally may have explored a financial sector opportunity are now thinking about what the next biggest growth opportunity could be. The expectation that emerging markets will recover faster from the economic downturn may be driving the most ambitious to this burgeoning discipline.

Or, perhaps it’s the collapse of the banks and the prevalence of corporate corruption juxtaposed with the hope instilled in the masses with the Obama campaign and subsequent win that is turning burgeoning capitalists to turn their sights to BoP markets where they believe the market can begin to address real problems. Regardless the reason, potential interns seem to be flocking to the world of BoP enterprise, corporate social responsibility and emerging market business development.

Just take a look at the Acumen Fund (disclaimer: Acumen Fund is a sponsor of where 690 applications came in for just 10 intern spots. And that’s not an isolated case – many of my non-profit friends are reporting huge upticks in their intern pools.

The failing global economy inevitably means tough times ahead for developing economies. With consumers, business, NGOs and governments all reigning in expenses, services to the most needy are likely to suffer. Even the most well-meaning organizations will face cuts and make hard decisions. Corporate social responsibility initiatives are often the first to get cut in tough times and even for-profit investments are seeking out the least risky investments – often turning to well-known and tested markets where strong market data can support decisions.

A surplus of interns interested in positions with a socially responsible bent means that the select number of positions with socially responsible programs will end up being staffed with the very best this year’s crop of MBAs has to offer. It also means that those passionate about BoP topics who did not secure positions in this field will filter into more traditional internship positions. These possibilities can both yield positive results for the BoP. Socially responsible programs will benefit from the expertise and progressive thinking that comes with inspired, smart interns. But, even more so, the filtering of passionate and socially-minded interns into other fields will help pepper other industries and business units with a new perspective on and consciousness of BoP markets.

In short, it’s a tough market, even for smart, highly qualified interns eager to work passionately and tirelessly for free. Having reviewed my fair share of intern applications, I would remind candidates to use their passions to show what they can do for the company or organization to which they are applying. We hear over and over again how our internship is a perfect fit for the candidate’s interests but little is said about what the candidate will do to support our day-to-day work and help to further our mission. And not all businesses with an interest and passion for the BoP are created equal. Understand each organization’s approach and what makes each different. Programs may be focused on profit, corporate social responsibility, philanthropy, or in the building of brand or government good-will. And each requires a different skill set in their interns.