What the First Global Research Study on Social Intrapreneurship Tells Us About Making Business More Sustainable From the Inside Out

Alexandra Nemeth

Program manager at MovingWorlds.org

“It’s no secret that the private sector needs to do more if the planet is to have any chance of achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. But how can companies make a difference?”

Business as Unusual, Yunus Social Business Report on Social Intrapreneurship

Microsoft recently announced that it will be carbon negative by 2030, and will go on to remove all of the carbon it has ever emitted from the environment by 2050. As impressive as this effort is, it’s important to keep in mind that this wasn’t Microsoft’s first venture into sustainability. It first began experimenting with such initiatives over a decade ago, thanks to intrapreneurs who built the case to be a better global citizen from the inside out.

We need more companies like Microsoft to take real responsibility for their environmental and social consequences because it’s going to take more than just governments and NGOs to get us back on track for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. Global corporations are the single greatest source of economic power and productivity in the world, and we can’t solve our most pressing global challenges without harnessing the power of business as a force for good. A top-down approach can take years to build, but there’s an alternative approach that generates transformative change from the bottom-up: social intrapreneurship (SI). 

At the 2020 World Economic Forum last week, Yunus Social Business released the most comprehensive global research study on social intrapreneurship to date. Over the previous nine months, researchers identified an ecosystem of nearly 200 separate practitioners worldwide, then interviewed more than 50 globally-based executives and social intrapreneurs at multinational giants including IKEA, Morgan Stanley, and SAP. 

The resulting report provides conclusive evidence of the positive impact of social intrapreneurship, as well as meaningful tools and recommendations for its implementation. You can find the full 91-page report here, or keep reading for a summary the key findings as well as helpful insights for each of the six stages of the social intrapreneurship journey. 

What is a Social Intrapreneur?

The report defines a social intrapreneur as “an entrepreneurial employee who develops a profitable new product, service, or business model that creates value for society and her company. Social intrapreneurs help their employers meet sustainability commitments and create value for customers and communities in ways that are built to last.” 

Social intrapreneurs are changemakers within powerful organizations who ignite and drive real change. Tapping into their energy and drive is a fast-track strategy to change the culture within corporations, and has the potential to ultimately remodel business into a force for good.

Traditional change efforts have typically been top-down, focusing on changing the attitudes, values, and beliefs of employees in order to change the way they act. Social intrapreneurs, on the other hand, lead by example: by acting differently, they create tangible examples of change that show what is possible, ultimately transforming attitudes, values, and beliefs from the bottom-up.

It’s important to note that Social Intrapreneurs can:

  1. Operate at any level within the company
  2. Initiate grassroots/bottom-up ideas
  3. Start their own initiatives, big or small, to create social value in-line with business strategy and operations

How do Social Intrapreneurs Drive Change From The Inside Out?

The report found that successful social intrapreneurs followed a journey that involved six main stages. See the key findings about each stage, as well as key takeaways to apply to your own change efforts, below.

Stage 1: Inception

What the report found: The intrapreneurs interviewed had numerous sources of inspiration, including external speakers, new research, or a compelling book. However, the majority stated that the values and purpose at the heart of their company is what encouraged them to begin. With an idea in mind, the next step is to define the factors in the external environment that will influence how the initiative operates. 

Your major takeaway: Look to your company’s core values and purpose statement for inspiration. Once you have an idea, define your operating context by asking questions like: What is the social or environmental problem we want to address? Which geographic region is the best place to start? What are the strategic opportunities or challenges we need to manage to solve the problem, and what strategic opportunities or challenges do we need to manage within our corporation internally? (Find more guidance, see this chapter on getting started in our complete guide to making your business more socially responsible.) 

Stage 2: Strategic Intent

What the report found: 76% of social intrapreneurs described C-Level buy-in as a key success driver for their initiative. Of those who secured that buy-in, 51% mentioned internal storytelling as a major success factor. An important part of the process is demonstrating the non-financial values and benefits clearly by establishing meaningful metrics and a clear Theory of Change. (To learn more about how to show, rather than tell, the benefits of your initiative, watch this episode of Beyond Buzzwords featuring Zillow’s Head of Social Impact.) 

Additionally, 75% of all initiatives that were able to secure C-Level support at an early stage were linked to the core business or directly feeding into the company’s value chain. The initiatives that struggled most to get C-Level attention were those launched mostly as innovative CSR initiatives not part of the core operations. 

Your major takeaway: To get executive support, position your initiative in the strategic framework of your company and its stakeholders, rather than as a peripheral add-on (more tips on this in our complete guide to making your business more socially responsible). Your initiative should ultimately solve an issue that relates closely to the company supply chain and propose a combination of long and short term goals with meaningful metrics aligned with the company’s strategy. 

Stage 3: Ideation

What the report found: A deep understanding of the initiative’s target beneficiaries is essential to success, but 30% of social intrapreneurs reported gaining that understanding as a key challenge. Mapping the needs of the target beneficiary community through discovery and research were cited as important steps to avoid assumptions. (Check out our brainstorming template to help you identify strategically aligned ideas that are world-positive.)

Involving passionate employees at the early stages of the process helped build positive momentum and challenge the complexity of the corporate environment. Successful initiatives balanced autonomy and access to company resources by building resilient internal teams committed to pushing against the tide: 43% of respondents cited this as a key success factor. These teams also served as internal champions by articulating the rationale and importance of sustainability.

To fill in remaining gaps in knowledge and expertise, 53% of interviewees mentioned building partnerships as a key success factor. Building alliances and partnerships with organizations that understand the local context helped the initiatives build trust, develop the most relevant go-to-market strategies, and reach underserved communities. 

Your major takeaway: Once you’ve assembled the right internal team, get out from behind your desk and take a human-centered design approach to mapping the needs of your target beneficiaries. To fill in gaps in expertise, build local partnerships with established organizations already operating in the space. Along the way, continue to champion the program internally by communicating its rationale and importance. 

Stage 4: Testing

What the report found: 32% of social intrapreneurs reported “piloting” and “iteration” as a key success factor. Successful intrapreneurs set up the testing phase as flexible and exploratory, and were open to surprising results that may change the course of an initiative. 

Your major takeaway: Adopt a lean approach by focusing on the core issue and prototyping rather than over-engineering a specific solution. Starting small and iterating helps quickly create traction and develop meaningful models that are tailored to market and beneficiary needs.

Phase 5: Implementation

What the report found: Securing adequate funding is key to an initiative’s success. Respondents reported that starting the initiative with a long-term, flexible investment plan from the parent company helps it thrive. 45% of intrapreneurs reported that structuring the initiative to operate independently from corporate procedures (while still having access to the resources of the corporate group) was a key success factor.

Your major takeaway: Designing your initiative to operate independently from the start will help you overcome corporate process and decision-making inertia and avoid mission drift. Depending on resources required, that could mean establishing a separate legal entity, keeping the initiative within the parent company but securing multi-year budgets, or keeping the project as part of a specific department. (Find more guidance on building the case to executives here.)

Phase 6: Scale

What the report found: Successful intrapreneurs developed solid long-term strategic partnerships between their initiatives and their parent corporations, positively impacting cross-functional teams and adding economic value for all business departments. They also collaborated externally, facilitating ongoing and open discussion with other corporations to share experiences and identify opportunities for cooperation. Over 50% of all initiatives that were older than 10 years mentioned external partnerships as a success factor. 

Successful intrapreneurs also reported that measuring impact from the start is crucial to scaling, but 16% of respondents cited impact measurement as a challenge.

Your major takeaway: Sold long-term strategic partnerships, both with other business units within the parent company and between the parent company and other corporations, are a critical piece of achieving scale. Implement independent impact evaluation from the start with a third party, like a university, to take a data-driven approach to strategic decisions and to share with potential partners. (Using tools like FSG’s guide to Shared Value and Common Impact’s approach to partnership building can help you take the next steps.)

How Do Corporations Benefit from Social Intrapreneurship?

In addition to benefitting society and the environment as a whole, social intrapreneurship also has major benefits for the parent corporation itself. The research revealed five major ways that social intrapreneurship creates value for corporations:

  1. It improves employee engagement, job satisfaction, and talent acquisition and retention
  2. It spurs business innovation across departments
  3. It helps the corporation reach new markets or new customers
  4. It improves corporate brand equity
  5. It supports mindset shifts within the company that lead to culture change or even corporate transformation

In Summary 

“Consumers are demanding more from their products, for transparent value chains that are ‘planet positive’. Prospective employees want to work for corporations that make the world a better place. This radical shift in public sentiment is also reflected in the political sphere, with the prevalent ‘green wave’ during the 2019 European Election and the Green New Deal proposals gaining traction globally. There is mounting pressure — but also a great opportunity for companies to take decisive action.”

Business As Unusual, Yunus Social Business Report on Social Intrapreneurship

Change is on the horizon, and the pressure for more socially responsible corporate citizens will only continue to mount. Powerful corporations face a choice: become leaders of sustainable change, or be left behind. Rather than having to wait for attitudes to change from the top-down, employees within these corporations also have an opportunity to drive transformation from the inside out using the insights from this report.

Looking for more personalized guidance in leading social change at your company? Apply to our MovingWorlds Institute Global Fellowship to learn leading impact frameworks, gain hands-on experience, and access coaches and mentors!