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 your journey toward social good.

When I started my jobs at the Phoenix House and later at the American Heart Association, I was an idealist. Like so many others, I was thrilled to have a job “making a difference.” By the time I left those positions to pursue an MBA at Duke, I had become a pragmatist. I recognized that we needed a new way of thinking to make a difference in the world, and social entrepreneurship was my philosophy of choice. It blended the best of the business world 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 their own businesses. This made sense in some cases, but sometimes seemed difficult 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, “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.” In this post, we will focus on why it is important to embrace nonprofit social intrapreneurship and how to affect this shift within your social sector organization.

Benefits of Social Intrapreneurship for Entrepreneurs
While there are distinct benefits for entrepreneurs to start a venture on their own, there are also two significant 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 help them cut their learning curve. 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 also cutting-edge. Secondly, 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 initial 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.

Benefits of Social Intrapreneurship for Nonprofits
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. Secondly, 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-taking. Social intrapreneurs can bring fresh thinking to these discussions and help find new revenue streams, create new markets and enhance brand-building.

How to Embrace Social Intrapreneurship
We know shifting toward a culture of social intrapreneurship has the potential to yield great rewards. Rather than driving millennials and MBAs toward new social enterprises, social intrapreneurship has the ability to attract a deeper talent pool for nonprofits while helping them drive impact within the social sector’s existing organizations. Based on our research and experience, here are four components that we believe are essential:

  • Entrepreneurial Culture: Peter Drucker allegedly said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” His point is well-taken – culture matters in every organization. To support entrepreneurship, the culture must embrace entrepreneurial principles such as fostering openness, adapting to change, understanding the dynamic between results and rewards, and being a learning organization. If this culture does not exist in the larger organization, you often can create it in a department or through a skunkworks project. I learned this first-hand at the American Heart Association, when we built the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. We used an intentional approach to create a counter-culture of innovation and results-orientation to accelerate our progress toward our obesity goals.
  • Lean Startup: While lean startup began in the for-profit space, it is equally important to use rapid prototyping in the social sector. We introduced a refined model for the social space that built upon the for-profit model of build-measure-learn. This process is perfect for new (or revised) product or service development in the social sector.
  • Insider/Outsider Perspective: One of the benefits of being an entrepreneur is that you get instant feedback from the marketplace and can adapt when needed. When you are working within an organization, you often have to build an army of support for your idea before moving forward. This requires a successful intrapreneur to have an insider/outsider mentality. The individual not only has to cultivate sufficient influence internally to develop buy-in and build trust, but also an external eye to the marketplace to ensure that the organization is keeping pace with competition and trends. At the American Heart Association, we spent just as much time at internal meetings speaking about our strategy as we did at external conferences. It was critical that we had advocates both internally and externally to support our ability to scale our ideas.
  • I-to-We Shift: One of the most difficult shifts from entrepreneurship to intrapreneurship is the movement from “I” to “We.” Entrepreneurs often build things on their own and can rightfully take credit for the success; intrapreneurs build within an organization and the team and/or organization takes credit for the success. For entrepreneurs to be successful as intrapreneurs within an organization, they have to sacrifice their egos for the greater good.


Bringing social intrapreneurship to the social sector can be beneficial to nonprofit organizations themselves, but it can also increase the likelihood of scaling impactful ideas. It is an idea worth testing within your organization – even in a small way. We would love to hear how you have implemented social intrapreneurship within your organization and any best practices you have learned along the way.

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