John Tsarpalas: If you’d like to add some excitement and energy to your organization or campaign, get a lot of work done, and perhaps affect the future of some talented young people, then think about starting a political internship program. Commonwealthy #23.
Today I am going to talk about a topic with Kristina Keats that’s near and dear to my heart, and that’s interns. I’ve had the best experiences dealing with students and young people. They bring such energy to a campaign. It’s so fun to have them around. And they go away, I hope, enriched and having had a good experience.
Tina, tell us first of all, who is an intern and why? How do you define an intern?
Kristina Keats: Well, an intern is defined actually by federal labor law. You are allowed to have students in an intern program, but the program has to be educational. They are exempt from minimum wage laws. So you don’t have to pay them whatever the minimum wage is.
What we did in our intern programs that worked the best is we set a minimum number of hours that they had to complete in order to complete the program. Then we had a stipend that was associated with that minimum number of hours.
So you could make it fifty hours with a stipend of $100 or a hundred hours. It’s whatever you want to do and whatever your needs are for the campaign. If this is a local election (school board or village board), there are less people to contact. But if you are running for state rep or some of the larger offices, then you are going to need a lot of help and you might want to have more hours and then also a higher stipend.
The reason why we set it as a minimum number of hours is because a lot of kids will start and it’s jut not their cup of tea, so they drop out. Well, if they don’t complete the program it means they haven’t completed the educational part of the program either.
You don’t want to get into paying them an hourly fee. It’s a program. They sign up for it. When they complete it, then they get the stipend. Included in the program is all of the things you want them to do.
Hopefully you have them do a lot of voter contact by phone, but also door to door. They can help with inputting data or putting together mailings or anything. I always felt the voter contact was the best training for an intern. We all have to sell ourselves in life. Talking to voters and selling a candidate is a skill that they learn.
I often times had very introverted interns who wanted to do the program, but it wasn’t natural for them to get on the phone and talk to people. I made them do it. They didn’t necessarily like it as much as the people who were extroverted, but I felt it was important for them to have that experience because it was give them confidence in their life to know that they can talk to a stranger if they have to. So that was really valuable.
Also, we planned in all of the intern programs that I ran educational seminars. We’d have at least four seminars. We’d bring people in to talk to the kids about politics, running for office, and different things. The kids that are interested in an intern program like this have a natural interest in politics.
We would bring them an elected official to talk about what it is like to be an elected official. Someone else would talk about fundraising and someone else would talk about designing good ads so that they actually had some hands on seminars that would useful in understanding how the political world works.
The other thing we would always try to do is make it fun. We ran contests every single day. We tried to run contests where the whole team of kids there working that day would win. It would be if we made as a group five thousand phone calls, then we went out for ice cream. It was just to make it fun.
A lot of it wasn’t the ice cream that motivated them; it was that we were going towards a goal and it was fun and we were a team. Sometimes I’d start making calls too to bump the numbers so that we could try and win. We’d just provide excitement. We had contests every single day.
So you have to be creative. What’s a fun contest to run? Sometimes we had contests with individual effort, like total performance in a week. In some of the really sophisticated races that we ran, we had big prizes like an iPad back when an iPad cost $500. That really motivated the kids. And they had fun doing it.
You cannot believe how creative they could become at pounding out more phone calls or door knocks or whatever. It was incredible. So you want to make it fun. You want to make it interesting.
The other thing that I felt was really important and I always did was I gave every single intern an exit interview.
John Tsarpalas: Oh, good idea.
Kristina Keats: I evaluated them the way an employer would evaluate them and gave them feedback. It was not to try to do anything negative. It was very rare that I felt I needed to tell them something that was a negative.
One of the things that I’ve found young people don’t recognize is how unique their group of qualities are.
John Tsarpalas: Yeah, their personal talents.
Kristina Keats: Their personal talents. Every single person has a unique combination. One person might be extroverted and very analytical and very thoughtful and insightful. They all have a unique combination.
Chances are no one who is not their mother or father has ever said to them, “This is what is very unique about you” and put it all together and say, “I don’t know what you are going to do with it, but I wanted you to know that these are my observations. You are funny and you are outgoing and you are very organized and hardworking and you are insightful. That’s just an unusual combination. You have all of those things. So when you go out into the world, recognize that you are uniquely talented in that way.”
That was very, very helpful. In fact, three years ago I got a letter from one of my interns who it had been four or five years since he had been intern. He sent me a letter because he told me I had changed his life.
He was the one who sent it, but I am sure that we had others because of looking at it and giving them feedback. A lot of kids don’t get that, not in a work situation. Who knows, their first job they may have a boss who might notice it, but doesn’t really-
John Tsarpalas Doesn’t think about and is too busy or whatever.
Kristina Keats: Doesn’t care enough to give the kid feedback. This kid was interesting because he was one of the few where I had to give him a negative. I had to tell him something.
It was a positive negative because basically what I had told him is that he had everything. He had all kinds of talent. He was personable. He was likeable. He was funny. He was really smart and really, really charming. But he one problem that he managed to get through life sort of not putting out full effort and still getting full benefit.
He was one that didn’t complete our intern program and wanted us to pay him for the part time that he done. I said, “No, you didn’t do the whole program.” He wasn’t happy because he wasn’t used to that. I could see because he was so charming and also very good looking that I think that he had never had to work really hard to get what he wanted.
I said, “You have everything going for you, but you have this one problem. You don’t think you have to work that hard. If you put effort into it, with all your talent who knows what you could do. The sky is the limit.” I don’t think anyone had ever told him that.
I wasn’t trying to be mean; I was trying to make him see something I saw where he’s a kid who could do whatever he wanted. I knew, having been in the real world, that you can have all that talent, but you still have to work hard to achieve what you want.
Anyway, this was like five years later and I think he went into the securities business and was making a fortune. He did have tons of talent.
I kind of went long, but it is important that these kids hear an evaluation from a non-parent and a non-teachers. Teachers give you a grade, but they don’t tell you what is special about you. That is something I loved about the intern program.
It is just amazing because these kids are basically volunteers, but they are motivated because they have a program that they have to complete. So you can get so much more work out of them and they are so much more reliable.
John Tsarpalas: Right. One of the things I always thought about internship programs that I was involved in is I think I influenced them. I think I helped give the some thoughts on some issues and also some thoughts on how politics actually work. I believe that might be more important than winning that election because of these people that I’ve influenced.
I’ve stayed in touch with some of the interns over the years, especially through Facebook and social media. They are still active and they are still involved. They are still thinking about it. I feel like we planted some seeds and they are still growing.
Kristina Keats: And that’s important for the future of the country. Sometimes, and this has nothing to do with an intern program, I look at how nasty politics has become and think, “Who is going to want to do this?” We are maybe not going to get the best and the brightest to do public service.
Finding a kid and getting him excited about it at an early age is really important. So it’s a two way street. The campaign benefits tremendously by getting a lot of voter contact and a lot of work done.
John Tsarpalas: It’s also a good face for the campaign, all of these young and excited people at a parade or whatever.
Kristina Keats: But they get something from it, too. When you are designing your intern program, think about what you can give to the kids, too.
John Tsarpalas: It isn’t necessarily about money; it’s about letting them learn something.
Kristina Keats: Right, and have an experience and responsibility that they are not going to find in a lot of places. A campaign has so much that needs to be done. Anyone who is willing and able to do something, it doesn’t matter if they are fifteen. Let them do it.
John Tsarpalas: Right. And there are so many young people that are talented in web things and computers. They are always rescuing me in a campaign and getting things done. People that can sort data so much quicker than us and things like that. It’s fabulous. Well, you are good at it, but I am not. I’d always end up with some intern that can handle it and do such a nice job.
Kristina Keats: They are also great with the voter contact and it’s great for them. It’s a wonderful thing if you have a source of interns. We should talk about that for just a minute. Where do you find interns?
John Tsarpalas: Right, and what age groups? And time of year.
Kristina Keats: You need to start recruiting interns in January for the summer program. Kids get their summer set. We used to recruit them through high schools. We post it in counseling offices.
John Tsarpalas: Political science departments at universities and colleges as well as high schools.
Kristina Keats: We had interns from age thirteen up through college. You have to have a mature thirteen year old. A lot of them are not.
John Tsarpalas: Right. And the high school kids you have to be a little more careful with what they can handle and can’t handle. Some of them are very introverted and they are not quite there yet to really want to get on the phone. But they will do other things.
The other thing is you are talking about a full time internship in the summer perhaps. But don’t rule out that there are kids that are off in different seasons for different reasons, such as home for a semester and looking for internships there.
And part time internships. We would have high school kids that would come in Tuesdays and Thursdays for a couple of hours.
Kristina Keats: Right. And that’s why you want to have more than one program. You might have a fifty hour program and a two hundred hour program, depending on how much time they can put into it.
Another really big source of internships are homeschoolers. A lot of the homeschool experiences are actual experiences. So that’s really good.
Also network through your parent friends. If you are in the age group where your friends have kids who are teenagers, then that’s helpful. Send an email to all your friends and ask if there is any kids who would like an internship.
You just have to be creative about how you find interns in just the same way that you are creative about how you find volunteers.
John Tsarpalas: Right. And you should have them fill out an application. Have an interview process. Talk to them and make sure they are a good fit. Make sure that they are going to be in sync with you too in terms of the issues. I mean, they don’t have to be perfect fits, but a little bit.
Kristina Keats: I wasn’t real doctrinaire about that because so many kids know so little about politics.
John Tsarpalas: Yeah, they are clueless. It’s a good chance to influence them.
Kristina Keats: Right. Well, it’s a chance to get them to understand the issues. So for most of the kids who take it or a lot of them, it was a summer job. It was something for them to do. If they are a sophomore or junior in high school, there aren’t a lot of options for what they can do. It’s a good experience all around for everybody.
John Tsarpalas: Let’s talk a little bit more about stipends or no stipends. There are internships that pay nothing.
Kristina Keats: Right. There are internships that pay nothing. I always felt that you couldn’t be demanding if you paid nothing. I wanted it to be a work experience for the kids. So I never had a no pay internship. We always had paying internships.
Now this was a few years ago. You’d probably have to pay more now, but we’d have them work 200 hours and they got $700. It sounds like a lot, but that’s-
John Tsarpalas: Well, it’s $3.50 an hour. That’s not a lot.
Kristina Keats: Right.
John Tsarpalas: But it’s a lot of money. Now let me throw in another though. Here’s something to go to your donors to raise money for your campaign for that specific.
If you know someone out there that you want to ask for some money for your campaign and you aren’t asking so much for yourself, you might be more comfortable saying, “I want to put together this great internship program. I want to sponsor five kids and it is going to cost me $700 a kid. So it is $3,500 to underwrite these kids in my campaign in this internship program. Could you write a check for that amount?”
So you are asking not for you and your campaign, but for those kids. That’s an easier ask for some candidates.
Kristina Keats: And to have an internship with that many hours is usually a campaign that is bigger. It is a state rep or state senate campaign; it’s not a school board campaign.
John Tsarpalas: It can be. If you’ve got the help, do it!
Kristina Keats: Well, unless it is a really big school district, you don’t have that many voters. So you could have smaller intern programs that are the Tuesday/Thursday after school things that you wanted to do.
So you figure out how many phone calls you need, how many voter contacts you need, and then you can back into how many hours of phone calls are you going to need.
John Tsarpalas: So all of this requires planning. You have to start early. As Tina said, for a summer program you need to start in January advertising for kids and getting that whole plan together. You are going to be interviewing them in February and March and signing them up then because they want to know where they are going to be in May and June.
Kristina Keats: Exactly. So if you have a spring election, you need to start that the summer before. That is the biggest problem with first time candidates. They decide to run for office two months before the election. You can do that.
John Tsarpalas: Let me throw another thought in here. If you are listening to this podcast and you run a GOP organization or a Tea Party organization or some form of a political PAC or not-for-profit, you should be thinking about internship programs because you are established. You are there. That program can happen every year ad infinitum. You are there then to support whoever is coming along to be running at that certain point.
In off years when there is no election, you can still have an internship program that makes calls to do issue ID. Find out if this person is worried about their taxes or not worried about their taxes. There are all kinds of questions you can be asking.
Kristina Keats: And past petitions to ID who is against.
John Tsarpalas: We talked about this in an earlier podcast. MoveOn.org cleaned my clock in my precinct with registering people in our district. MoveOn.org uses hundreds of interns or low paid students in the summer. Our organizations need to be doing that as well and getting kids out there that can be knocking on doors and finding people that are supporters for our causes.
Kristina Keats: Yeah, you could a registration campaign. There are all kinds of things you could do. In fact, it’s more effective to work when you are not in an election because people are willing to talk to you.
If you are knocking on the door for candidate so and so, people have got their guard up. They don’t want to talk to you. But if you are just knocking on the door to talk about issues in an off year when there isn’t an election, they will talk to you a lot more. It’s a good thing to do and should be part of your overall strategy.
John Tsarpalas: Very good. If you have questions, feel free to write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am happy to answer questions any time. We are here to help. We are here to give you training. We are also interested in wanting to what you need to know.
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I hope you enjoyed today’s podcast. We always have show notes and transcripts on the website at Commonwealthy.com.
Kristina Keats: I always felt the voter contact was the best training for an intern. We all have to sell ourselves in life. Talking to voters and selling a candidate is a skill that they learn.
I often times had very introverted interns who wanted to do the program, but it wasn’t natural for them to get on the phone and talk to people. I made them do it. They didn’t necessarily like it as much as the people who were extroverted, but I felt it was important for them to have that experience because it was give them confidence in their life.