Sheryl Sandberg’s Non-Profit Leans Back and Agrees to Pay Interns

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg’s non-profit organization Lean In describes itself as “a global community dedicated to supporting women leaning in to their ambitions.”

We have to admire the organization’s stated goals, but we have no doubt that Sandberg’s PR team went into overdrive when various news outlets reported that Lean In’s top editors didn’t plan to pay the ambitious women who applied to work there as interns.

Cue the “lean on interns” headlines.

As the ensuing discussion began to heat up, Lean In wisely chose to take a step back and reconsider its policy on unpaid internships. This Facebook post served as a formal announcement:

OK, so there was confusion as to what qualified as an internship versus a volunteer gig.

We admire Sandberg for her “tell it like it is” approach to business and her willingness to enter public debates about whether women can be both moms and CEOs. But we wouldn’t advise Lean In to rely on free labor in the future, especially since it goes against the organization’s primary message: professional women often do not receive fair compensation for the work they do, and they also face greater challenges than their male counterparts when ascending the career ladder.

Did they do the right thing? Let’s put it this way: the amount of money Lean In might have lost in paying said interns wouldn’t have come close to the damage this story has done to the organization’s reputation.

On the other hand, they’ve given us a great case study in the value of consistent messaging.