Social Intrapreneurship: Unleashing Social Innovation From Within

The next wave of social innovation can come from your employees.

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The concept of social intrapreneurship has emerged as a way to increase employee involvement in corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives. Social intrapreneurship occurs when employees engage in social innovation while employed by an organization. It sits at the intersection of social entrepreneurship, where entrepreneurs start an organization to address social issues, and business intrapreneurship, where employees innovate new products and services.

We’re seeing examples of social intrapreneurship slowly making their way into the corporate world. For instance, Westpac, a leading Australian bank, encourages individual employees and teams to choose their own targets for corporate volunteering and giving. In 2017, Daniel Heycox, at the time an employee relations and policy consultant for the bank, used this opportunity and support from Westpac to start a financial literacy program for refugees. He eventually engaged his whole team to help.

Despite the interest in purpose and a focus on stakeholder engagement in the business world, many companies are still struggling to make progress on their commitments to CSR. In a recent McKinsey survey of 1,000 employees at U.S. companies, 82% said it’s important for companies to have a purpose, but only 42% said their company’s stated purpose spurred positive change. To embrace and implement CSR holistically, companies must include employees and their creativity. Social intrapreneurship offers an opportunity to do just that, producing beneficial projects in the process.

The Multifaceted Benefits of Social Intrapreneurship

Social intrapreneurs often start out as lone wolves battling for social causes, but they are capable of unleashing great value. For example, Erin Fitzgerald, CEO of U.S. Farmers & Ranchers in Action, was able to persuade the leadership of the U.S. dairy industry’s central organization, Dairy Management Inc., to create an industrywide set of social and environmental goals. Over a decade, she worked from the inside to initiate environmental initiatives across the value chain that were valued at $238 million. Notably, key stakeholders joined the effort and collaborated to form a sustainability council comprising 124 representative organizations.

Social intrapreneurship is defined by its focus on impact rather than profit. (See “The Social Intrapreneurship Model.”) Our matrix shows the ways that intrapreneurship differs depending on its goals (impact versus profit) and the position of the person behind it (within or outside an existing organization).

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