While social entrepreneurship steals all the headlines, social intrapreneurship is a movement that is building momentum and for good reason. Today, we’re revisiting one of our most popular posts on the benefits of social intrapreneurship AND, in my personal experience, why it is the best place to start.

When I started my jobs at the regional office of Phoenix House and later the national office of the American Heart Association, I was an idealist. Just like many others, I was thrilled to have a job “making a difference.” When I left those positions and decided to pursue an MBA at Duke, I was a pragmatist. I recognized that for all of us to make a difference in the world we needed a new way of thinking and that social entrepreneurship was my philosophy of choice. It spoke to blending the best of the worlds of business and the social sector – taking risks on behalf of those you serve. However, in business school, the focus seemed to be on social entrepreneurs starting up their own businesses. This made sense in some cases, but sometimes seemed hard to justify. In the United States alone, we have more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations fighting issues domestically and internationally – what if social entrepreneurs used these existing organizations as their launchpads? In fact, without realizing it, that was what I did at both Phoenix House (where I was honored to help start numerous programs) and the American Heart Association (where I helped co-found the Alliance for a Healthier Generation). I realize now that I learned how to be a social entrepreneur by first being a social INTRApreneur.

Recently, other organizations, such as Ashoka and Net Impact, have been supporting this notion of social intrapreneurship. James Parr of LAUNCH states that “the social intrapreneur is a catalyst for change with the ability to combine innovative thinking and social altruism to move an organization to pursue social good as a business case – someone with an insider-outsider mindset and approach.” Right now, much of the emphasis on social intrapreneurship is focused on the for-profit sector. However, I can testify that this focus can be equally important to the nonprofit sector. Part One of this series will focus on why it is important for the social sector and the field of social entrepreneurship to embrace nonprofit social intrapreneurship. Part Two will focus on how to effect this shift within your social sector organization.

While there are distinct benefits for entrepreneurs to start up a venture on their own, there are two large disadvantages. First, entrepreneurs often have to skimp on resources to turn their ideas into reality. However, as intrapreneurs, entrepreneurs can gain access to a sophisticated resource pool, which can often cut the learning curve of most entrepreneurs. At the American Heart Association, I could tap experts in science, marketing, and technology. When we were starting the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, these resources were key in ensuring that the start-up was not only successful, but cutting edge. Second, the holy grail of entrepreneurship is scale – everyone wants to take their idea into the mainstream. As an entrepreneur, this is much harder to accomplish on your own. However, as an intrapreneur, it is far easier to use the resources and network of your organization to take an idea to scale. When I first developed the idea behind the “Healthy Schools Program,” it was just a concept. It was a team effort to transform it into a successful, research-based program that was eventually supported by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. I wonder today how many social entrepreneurs would be better off incubating their ideas within an established organization with access to capital, resources, and a network.

There are also advantages to the nonprofit sector to embrace social intrapreneurship. First, many organizations have been predicting the talent deficit facing the nonprofit sector. If nonprofit organizations can embrace social intrapreneurship, they will have access to a much larger talent pool interested in large-scale impact. The American Heart Association, to its credit, understood talent acquisition and retention. The leadership, including now-CEO Nancy Brown, let me invent, lead teams, and grow in multiple roles within the organization. If other nonprofits follow this lead, MBAs and millennials will flock to these nonprofit organizations and bring an influx of passion and skills to age-old social issues. Second, many century-old nonprofit organizations are dealing with entrenched issues, such as poverty and education, and have therefore built traditional bureaucracies that often inhibit out-of-the-box thinking and risk tasking. Social intrapreneurs can bring fresh thinking to these discussions and through their orientation find new revenue streams, create new markets, and enhance brand-building.

If the last decade was about social entrepreneurs, could this decade be about social intrapreneurs? We’d love to hear your thoughts. In Part Two, we will discuss how to make this organizational shift to foster intrapreneurship. In my experience, if we collectively embrace social intrapreneurship, we will drive the social sector forward in new and exciting ways. Why should entrepreneurs have all the fun?

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