Ellie Zimmerman is helping pave the road for young people to connect and receive hands-on volunteer experience with nonprofits, demonstrating it is never too early to follow your passion. Now a senior in high school, Ellie started her booming nonprofit Interns 4-Good at age 16 out of her own frustration not being able to secure an internship realistic for a high school schedule.
Ellie grew up in Purchase, New York with an admiration for photography and interest in learning graphic design. But putting her skills to use outside of school was a challenge. After freshman year, she applied for internships at local nonprofits. “I spent hours sifting through a maze of online marketplaces, with nothing surfacing,” she says. Ellie also reached out to local businesses, all who required prior work experience and at least one year of college. She knew she was up against obstacles having little to do with her capabilities or eagerness to work. The Boys & Girls Club of America offered her a position, but she had to turn it down because her parents were unable to drive her each day.
That year, Ellie attended a backpacking program in the Owyhee Mountains with 25 students from across the country. In speaking to fellow peers about her difficulties securing an internship, she discovered she was not alone. “Grace, an aspiring filmmaker from Atlanta, and Troy, a talented illustrator from California, both struggled to find the experience they needed to build portfolios. Others shared their frustration trying to find volunteer opportunities that accommodated their high school schedules. Almost every member of the group chimed in with similar anecdotes.”
Ellie had a lightbulb moment and was determined to find a solution. She interviewed several local charities to understand their technological needs. “In each case, digital projects had been piling up due to a lack of adequate resources. From maintaining social media accounts to organizing photo libraries and updating websites, these common needs were ideal projects for tech-savvy teen volunteers.”
Ellie’s mission was to fix this gap by building a platform connecting nonprofits and purpose-driven companies with high school interns. For several months, she worked on plans to get Interns 4-Good off the ground. The $ 400 this resourceful teen won from a social entrepreneurship pitch competition covered the cost of filing for nonprofit status and she was on her way.
Ellie allocates an annual $ 120,000 Google awarded advertising grant to cover web server costs and online marketing. After running “Virtual Internships for Teens” and “Volunteer Website Designer” ad spots, traffic to the website soared.
“Students typically find our website through Google or word of mouth. To become a volunteer, they fill out a Google form listing their skills/interests, completing two essays, and supplying a copy of their student ID, which we use to verify their age. Responses are tagged by skill and uploaded onto a master spreadsheet. Once accepted, each volunteer joins our Slack channel where they can access volunteer opportunities.”
Nonprofits may list positions on Interns 4-Good’s website or by emailing one of their volunteer nonprofit coordinators. “Our volunteers support a variety of causes with national and local organizations including the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation, Learning Ally, and Points of Light, She’s My Daughter, ENGin, and Volunteer New York. Most importantly, we work with dozens of student-led organizations that depend on our volunteers, helping young changemakers turn their dreams into reality.”
What started as an idea two years ago has surpassed Ellie’s expectations. Today, Interns 4-Good reaches 8,000 talented high school volunteers internationally and 180 nonprofit partners. “We receive around 100 new volunteer applications each day. By providing service options that are virtual, flexible, and offer real-world experience, volunteerism takes on a new meaning.”
Being one of the few virtual volunteer platforms, Interns 4-Good saw a surge in applications when COVID-19 hit. Homebound high schoolers missing extra-curricular activities and in-person social interaction created a sense of urgency for the nonprofit. Ellie was doing everything solo and knew she needed help. Luckily, the platform she created gave her access to already approved volunteers. Through a mass call to action email, she hired 18 teens to volunteer for the company. With this additional support, Ellie quickly expanded services to help the many children, parents, and teachers struggling with the transition to remote learning. During these trying times, she was amazed to watch the community she built rise to the challenge.
Creating lesson plans for teachers struggling to engage their students online was the first job Ellie and her team tackled. Within three weeks, the Interns 4-Good YouTube channel offered over 150 videos on topics ranging from space to model UN to the stock market. “Our volunteers now offer free virtual homework help to lower and middle school students, and technology support for parents and teachers struggling to navigate unfamiliar platforms such as Zoom and Google Classroom.”
While many high school seniors are planning celebratory vacations before their first year of college, Ellie is planning for Interns 4-Good’s expansion. Her strategy includes volunteers carrying the organization into their college communities as they have done within their respective high schools. “As our partnerships continue to grow, we will soon be able to provide interns not only with volunteer internship opportunities, but with paid internships with businesses that have social missions. Within the next year, I hope to transform our platform into an app that will ease the onboarding process for volunteers and organizations alike. The app will also serve as an online community for young volunteers to share information about their experiences and to spread the spirit of volunteerism among their peers.”