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). Business intrapreneurship takes place within a business and for financial gains; business entrepreneurship occurs outside an organization for profit goals; social entrepreneurship takes place outside an existing organization for environmental and social impact; and social intrapreneurship takes place within an organization, with the aim of creating a positive impact.

Programs’ impact can vary. The benefits of social intrapreneurship encompass innovation, improved reputation, increased employee engagement, and reduced turnover — in addition to new opportunities for businesses to be more sustainable and effective and address their own CSR goals.

Social intrapreneurship presents an opportunity for companies to come up with inventive solutions to social issues while promoting employee engagement and performance. It also enables them to become innovative in general. At Optus, a leading telecom in Australia, an employee noticed that many homeless people were purchasing a “$2 per day” calling plan that was originally designed for students. He suggested creating a similar plan for homeless people that would also allow them to make free calls to social services and welfare agencies. The program helped meet people’s basic need for telephone contact with the groups that serve them.

For employees, social intrapreneurship can be a vital opportunity to use their skills and passion to do something meaningful through their work. This, in turn, can facilitate a sense of pride, affiliation, and well-being, and a new level of engagement. While engaged employees are emotionally connected to the workplace, the intrapreneur is connected to the bigger picture of an organization’s strategic goals, customer desires, and need for continuous improvement by using existing assets to address market problems.

At IBM, for instance, Kevin Thompson created the IBM Service Corps program in 2008, modeled as a corporate version of the Peace Corps. Employees were invited to complete a one-month initiative in another country, where they could apply skills they had learned at IBM in order to address a social or environmental issue. While leadership was initially skeptical of the program, all doubts disappeared when IBM received more than 14,000 applications from people in 52 countries for the first 100 opportunities. Over 4,000 employees have been involved in over 1,400 projects, and 93% stated that their participation enhanced their ability to lead a global team.

Importantly, social intrapreneurship presents a remarkable opportunity for the community and the social sector to partner with corporations in a novel way. Moving beyond philanthropy, community organizations can use corporate innovation and talent to find novel solutions to old problems. Social enterprises codeveloped by companies and not-for-profits through social intrapreneurship can be the next way of generating collective impact.

Employees at the Dutch company ABN AMRO demonstrated this in their work with the Amsterdam government and local not-for-profit organizations to establish Circl. The multipurpose pavilion is the country’s first sustainable circular building and now serves as a knowledge source for building for the circular economy.

Four Ways to Ignite Social Intrapreneurship

To become part of this emerging movement toward social change, companies can use four strategies to encourage social intrapreneurship proactively.

Support and develop the social intrapreneur. Social intrapreneurs often struggle to develop their ideas due to a lack of knowledge and motivation. Support can take the form of in-house accelerators and incubators, connecting intrapreneurs to networks such as the Aspen Institute’s First Movers Fellowship Program for corporate social intrapreneurs or the League of Intrapreneurs online community. Companies that emphasize the need for trial and error, as well as sustainability and responsibility, can create fruitful soil for social intrapreneurs to flourish. Companies can also help employees develop self-awareness, social consciousness, empathy, and self-efficacy — traits required for successful social intrapreneurship and beneficial within organizations.

Glorify the collective. While the individual social intrapreneur is often portrayed as the star of any success story, programs with impact take a collective movement. Leaders can create a culture that celebrates not just innovation and social impact, but collaboration as well. It is crucial that both the individual and the collective around them are acknowledged.

Make it easier to mobilize resources. One of the keys to social intrapreneurs’ success is finding resources, most notably time and money. In a study of social intrapreneurs, 55% said they struggled to secure required financial resources through traditional paths. Companies can set up an impact investing fund to support emerging internal initiatives and employees’ social enterprises and provide employees with time by allowing these initiatives to be part of the job.

Innovate with a multi-stakeholder approach. Employers can assist social intrapreneurs in navigating through multiple goals and stakeholders, which is often a major challenge. In return, social intrapreneurs can be vehicles for companies to truly focus on the well-being of stakeholders such as customers, even involving them in the innovation process.


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