From Employee to Changemaker: How to Adopt an Intrapreneurial Mindset

Pursuing intrapreneurship in the nonprofit sector can be a rewarding experience for the individual and the organization.

By Alison Powers, MBA

Intrapreneurship Article

Boosting organizational revenue and growth while making the most of in-house knowledge and talent are good business cases to give it a try. For the individual, embarking on intrapreneurial activity can increase morale and productivity, which is good for personal and professional growth. This article examines how to create an intrapreneurial mindset at your nonprofit.

What is intrapreneurship?

Over the last two decades, entrepreneurial activity by individuals and teams within organizations has received increased attention in the workplace. Virtually all organizations are now striving to increase innovation and proactive behavior to solve complex problems through internal entrepreneurial activity. Often called intrapreneurship, this innovative activity spurs new programs, innovation, and a renewed commitment to strategic goals to overcome the staleness that affects many organizations. In the nonprofit space, intrapreneurship is known for specific intentions and behaviors, such as risk-taking, innovativeness and proactiveness, at multiple levels, often tied to the organizational mission.

Who is intrapreneurship for?

Nonprofit organizations of all sizes and all industry spaces can benefit from creating an intrapreneurial mindset. Many observers maintain that nonprofit organizations must identify more effective and sustainable ways to address complex problems, including adopting more business-like methods and intrapreneurial practices. For many nonprofits, especially those in the healthcare space, it can often seem daunting to foster innovation in an environment that can be very political and where conflicting forces—such as healthcare and social services—oftentimes seem to work against each other unintentionally. While breaking through the bureaucratic layers takes patience and collaboration, it can be extremely rewarding. When you innovate within these complex systems, you can really make an impact on the community you serve.

How do you become an intrapreneur?

As an intrapreneur in the nonprofit space, you’ll need a good dose of patience, trust from your manager, and financial resources. While you might love solving problems, don’t rush into situations with solutions. Instead, try sitting with a question or problem for a while to avoid implementing sub-optimal solutions. At the same time, learn from setbacks to develop an all-important personal and professional skill – resilience – so that when something fails, you bounce back rather than getting discouraged or demoralized. 

Manage expectations

Not only will fear of failure affect an intrapreneur, but it will also hinder managerial trust. According to a study by California State University on Intrapreneurship in Nonprofit Organizations, individuals undertaking activities involving risk-taking and the possibility of failure may believe that managerial trust will diminish if projects or activities do not meet established goals. To combat this, set yourself, your partners, and your project up for success by conversing with management before undertaking a project. Asking the all-important question – what does success look like for this project? – goes a long way toward managing expectations.

Create a business plan to secure financial support

For the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), staff start their journey into intrapreneurship with a business case. Presented to the financial team, projects that are
ultimately approved are supported financially by the organization’s Innovation Fund, a fund established to support innovative ideas.

AAP sets aside funds for projects that have potential but involve some risk. The project must be mission-focused, revenue must break even within three years, and it must have a positive margin by the fifth year. The positive margin is then used to pay back the Innovation Fund to support other innovative ideas. AAP knows that some of these projects will fail and some will succeed, so the successful ones fund the ones that did not work out and generate additional funds for future projects. After a payback period, the positive margin goes to the general AAP funds to fund operations.

One of the Academy’s most successful projects is Healthy, a parenting website with information about the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), its many programs and activities, policies and guidelines, publications and other child health resources.

Currently, the Academy is working with the software company EPIC to develop an app to integrate the AAP’s patient education module with MyChart. This would provide AAP resources and guidelines for patient care directly to electronic health records.

Does the narrative work?

In the nonprofit sector, success looks like mission-focused leadership. Where the for-profit sector might be motivated by market share, nonprofits focus on multiple measures of success that ultimately support their mission, which is usually tied to serving great numbers of the population.

Because the nonprofit sector is highly collaborative, with healthcare environments taking a particularly people-centric, bottom-up approach, innovation means empowering diverse stakeholders to develop ideas rather than imposing them from leadership.  Working with diverse stakeholders means getting comfortable with leading or following, depending on the issue or audience. Adapting your style to the situation will make the experience smoother, better balanced, and probably a better outcome for your project.

Ultimately, for the nonprofit organization, success will look very collaborative. Successful nonprofits mobilize and inspire their staff to marry innovation and collaboration. For the individual, moving past the fear of failure to give yourself to a project and see it through will bring a renewed commitment to the organization’s mission and a new set of skills and title: intrapreneur.

About the Author

Alison is manager of district and chapter programs at the American Academy of Pediatrics.

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