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Innovation From the Inside: How Intrapreneurship Creates Social Impact

By Contributing Author

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This is a guest blog by Stephanie Cosner Berzin, Ph.D., Chair, Social Innovation and Leadership, and Co-Director of the Center for Social Innovation at Boston College School of Social Work. This year, Stephanie joins us on the esteemed Leadership Council, voting alongside other industry leaders to determine the 10 Classy Award Winners.

Since 1973, when theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber provided one of the first presentations of the term “wicked problem,” there has been a clear understanding that certain issues are too complex and unique to be solved using traditional methods. As a social sector, we understand all too well the complex challenges related to things like hunger, violence, clean water, obesity, and poverty. These problems are vast, difficult, and can be overwhelming.

But with innovation, there is hope and possibility. Given the advances in technology, the increase in collaboration and partnerships, the erosion of sectoral boundaries, and the effects of globalization, it’s clear we’ve entered a time when large scale problems are at last solvable. Innovation has the potential to move us forward and create solutions we never knew were possible.

We see many organizations that laud the work of successful social entrepreneurs who build new solutions to social problems. We see the development of new nonprofit organizations and new social enterprises to combat global and local challenges. But what about existing organizations? What is their role to play in innovation?

Startups Are Not the Only Game In Town

Through my work at the Center for Social Innovation I have literally worked with hundreds of nonprofit leaders who are eager and capable of innovating from within their organizations. Intrapreneurship, often considered the corollary of entrepreneurship, from within an organizational context, provides the potential to rethink paradigms of who is most nimble and most adept to make change. Intrapreneurs work tirelessly from within organizations to develop, promote, and implement change.

Existing organizations not only provide a suitable alternative to the startup paradigm, but in a world with an abundance of nonprofit organizations, there are some clear benefits to this approach. Existing nonprofits often have reached scale and can immediately accelerate new ideas without the growth pains faced by many new endeavors. They have proven sustainability with success through both abundant and austere economic times. They have existing organizational structures and resources that can be leveraged to support new ideas.

And nonprofits have extraordinary people who are well versed with the communities and individuals impacted by the problem they seek to solve. Their staff and leaders bring intimate knowledge of social problems and expertise around past successes and failures. When we bring that knowledge and experience to bare, we capitalize on the possibility of learning from the past and building towards a better future. But building an organization for intrapreneurship requires work and purposeful investments.

Don’t Wait For It—Build It

With intrapreneurship as a viable path to innovation, nonprofit agencies can and should purposefully focus on how to stimulate innovation within their organization.

In the Center for Social Innovation study, Leading the Way, we spoke to social sector leaders who were doing this work. They were actively looking for opportunities and building the right context for innovation to emerge. As one of them said,

In our business, you are competing in an environment with declining resources. You have to be creative with all of them, and this is part of asking questions about the future and being entrepreneurial.

But how do organizations develop for innovation? What steps can organizations take to pave the way for intrapreneurship to emerge within their structure?

Through the Center’s Social Innovation Lab and research working with hundreds of nonprofit leaders, three areas emerge that activate innovation from the inside. My forthcoming book Innovation from Within: Redefining How Nonprofits Solve Problems builds on these ideas. These elements can help guide organizations who want to deepen their commitment to innovation and inspire intrapreneurship.

Change the Mindset

Each organization brings certain strengths and faces certain challenges to innovation. Yet, organizations that share a drive for innovation share common mindsets and vision.

Critical to being ready for innovation is demonstrating values and commitment that are in line with progress. Organizations need to adopt a mindset that not only tolerates, but celebrates risk and failure. They need to adopt a beginner’s mindset where all ideas are open to vetting and reconsideration. A deep commitment to empathy suggests the willingness to understand the issue from the beneficiaries’ perspective. It is about putting the organization’s needs in the backseat and letting users dictate the direction.

Organizations that successfully develop and implement innovation tie its practice to their organizational mission. By recognizing the value innovation brings to the organization and to the populations you are trying to support, people become more willing to take risks and challenge the status quo. The agency mindset shifts to one that understands that through experimentation and progress, the organization will be better able to create social impact. . This focus on creating a better future allows the organization to learn from the past, but to keep moving forward. While some agencies are reticent to make change, those committed to innovation realize the need for continual progress until the social problems have been solved

Create the Context

Organizations that deliberately nurture innovation create the time and space for creativity to flourish. I think back to my first position as a new social worker at a nonprofit agency in New York City. And then I think about my first visit to the Apple Campus in Cupertino, CA. What was it about the Apple space that screamed innovation and the nonprofit space that just did not?

While nonprofits face constraints that may limit their ability to emulate tech giants, there are things that can be done to provide the message that “innovation lives here.” Physical space that supports innovation may include things like collaborative office space, creative uses of natural or raw materials, interesting color choices, and different sources of light.

Where physical space cannot be altered, you can engineer spontaneous interactions between team members through the placement of centralized supplies, open space for networking, and places that encourage chance meetings. Even the use of nontraditional seating provides different interactions and potential for thought. Inspiration on the walls through slogans, quotes, or photographs may also serve as a spark for creativity.

As much as physical space can foster innovation, the availability of materials within those spaces matters too. It is no surprise that the start-up and innovation spaces I have visited are replete with white boards, markers, and no shortage of post-it notes. These indicate the open flow of ideas, the ability to share, and the desire to build and change ideas. By using materials that can easily be moved or manipulated, we demonstrate our commitment and tolerance for incomplete ideas and our comfort with iteration. Additional art supplies and materials for creation, like clay, wood, pipe cleaners, glue, and fabric, open up the possibility for creativity to emerge.

To create context for innovation, you not only need space, but also time. Organizations with successful intrapreneurs show they value innovation by providing the time and mental space for it. Some organizations have staff or resources specifically committed to innovation. It may involve a small subset of staff or providing opportunities to engage the whole organization. Some do this systematically through ideation sessions, hackathons, open innovation platforms, monthly idea submissions, or innovation labs. Others promote it more subtly by having retreats, meetings, or time set aside for this type of creativity to emerge. In all cases, the context is built not only to allow for innovation, but to encourage and stimulate it to flourish.

Catalyze the People Power

An organization is only as strong as the people who work there. As one of our participants in Leading the Way, remarked,

Organizations are not innovative or enterprising, people are.

While organizations can certainly work to become more innovative and create the right context for creativity, human capital is essential to develop, implement, and sustain change.

When considering readiness for innovation, successful nonprofits engage people across the entire organization. They deliberately engage strong leadership, build diverse teams, involve board members, motivate volunteers, connect with clients, and nurture strategic partnerships.

Organizational change literature is clear that strong leadership promotes innovation. Leaders from innovative nonprofits seem to share common characteristics:

  • An orientation towards the future
  • A shared leadership style with more broadly distributed power (rather than vertical or hierarchical)
  • A willingness and ability to command the necessary resources
  • An aptitude for idea-making
  • Commitment to developing and supporting staff

Mainly, leaders need to demonstrate their commitment to innovation and its centrality to mission.

Nonprofits that succeed at innovation develop and nurture diverse teams. It’s a given that you need people with the skills and resources to carry out ambitious plans. But innovation takes it one step further to suggest that you can purposefully create opportunities for ideas to emerge. By building teams that are diverse across gender, age, race, ethnicity, organizational tenure, unit or functional area, and experience, you increase the likelihood for innovation to emerge. Further, diverse teams mean the potential for buy-in to new ideas from across the organization.

You can also engage your board in the innovation process to stimulate their buy-in and commitment. They also offer diverse perspectives and skills that may complement what is available among your staff. Their ‘outsiders’ view may spot external opportunities that were not visible to staff or may provide outside resources not otherwise available.

Innovative nonprofits also look beyond the staff roster to engage people with various skills to support their efforts. Many use volunteers in creative ways to bolster professional skill sets or add diverse perspectives. The population served by the organization is also an invaluable resource for input and support in developing and sustaining innovation. Partnerships and collaborations, both within and outside the nonprofit sector, may serve roles related to development, implementation, or resources. Innovative nonprofits harness the power of people within and outside their organization.

Accelerate Innovation

Nonprofits need to get in the business of innovating. Innovation does not only come from new organizations, entrepreneurs, or startups, but can come from the oldest, most established organizations. With the right work, resources, and dedication you can build for innovation and create the environment for it. Nonprofits can nurture the mindset that stimulates innovation, develop the right context for creativity, and activate the power of people to create, implement, and sustain innovation. With this commitment to stimulating innovation from the inside, nonprofits can more effectively, more efficiently solve social challenges.


As Co-Director of the Center for Social Innovation, Stephanie Cosner Berzin’s work builds the evidence-base for social innovation, prepares tomorrow’s social sector leaders, and promotes the innovation capacity of existing agencies. Her research focuses on social intrapreneurship in human service organizations and improving services to combat poverty and support vulnerable youth.

Photo Credit: flickr user amnestystudent

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