Creating a company culture that engages social intrapreneurs

Creating a company culture that engages social intrapreneurs

This is the first of three guest columns on social intrapreneurship. The others are "Expanding Skills and Advancing Your Career Through Social Intrapreneurship" and "Four Smart Steps to Social Intrapreneurship."

Social intrapreneurs or corporate changemakers, who initiate social and environmental projects to bring their ideals to work and create value for their companies, can exist in nearly every organization.

Yet it takes a conducive corporate culture to fully unlock their potential. And companies have much to gain by encouraging social intrapraneurship -- from employee recruitment and retention to creating new environmental savings and economic opportunities.

Recently, Net Impact developed a report on the work and potential of social intrepreneurs. Our publication -- "Making Your Impact at Work: A Practical Guide to Changing the World from Inside Any Company" -- profiled several social intrapreneurs from our network who added social, environmental and economic value to their organizations through projects ranging from carbon emissions management to introducing new products and services.

Our research made one thing clear: Social intrapreneurs can contribute new ideas and innovative solutions in almost any corporate culture, from small start-ups to larger, established corporations. Organizations that provide the most conducive corporate climates develop structures to support social intrapreneurs, engage leadership support, and encourage employees at all levels to get involved.

Developing Structures to Support Social Intrapreneurs

Like many outstanding corporate citizens, eBay understands that with more than 15,000 employees spread across 35 countries, one of the organization's greatest resources is their employees. In 2007, a group of 40 eBay employees gathered over pizza at the company's headquarters in San Jose to talk about the ways in which they could make eBay a greener company.

Project by project, the team's accomplishments grew from smaller, local initiatives like rideshare programs and recycling drives to larger-scale efforts like advocating for local legislation and, eventually, inspiring the company to install San Jose's largest solar installation at their corporate headquarters, which came online in 2008. Since then, and building on the momentum from their early successes, the eBay Green Team has swelled to more than 2,000 members in more than 20 countries around the world.

The projects that these individuals have spearheaded have covered a wide variety of activities and accomplishments; ranging from local public policy initiatives to volunteer events to awareness-building programs and beyond.

The company's Omaha Green Team recently undertook an initiative to build and launch a corporate-sponsored community garden that offers local employees access to a dedicated land plot where they can grow and harvest their own vegetables. The first of its kind among Fortune 500 companies, the garden not only offers employees a valuable and unique benefit -- especially for those apartment dwellers without access to arable land -- it promotes local, seasonal and sustainable diets and a heightened awareness for more sustainable, lower-carbon eating habits.

Through initiatives like this and the hundreds of other programs that eBay employees are involved in all over the world, the eBay Green Team has become a scalable platform for employees who want to drive positive change, which builds a deep cultural commitment to social intrapreneurship. Similar structures can ensure that social intrapreneurs can easily access opportunities to implement their ideas for positive social and environmental change.

Engaging Leadership Support for Social Intrapreneurs

Executive support is also helpful in scaling social and environmental projects and providing ongoing support. At Timberland, social intrapreneur Michael Fischer developed a tool to track carbon emissions from the company's transportation of goods. Timberland's membership in Business for Social Responsibility and public commitment to becoming carbon neutral by 2010 encouraged Fischer's work as a social intrapreneur. While outside the scope of his job role, Fischer could easily see that his intrapreneurial work was furthering the company's values.

Companies whose executives make public commitments to sustainability foster a culture where employees know that "doing the right thing" is the right thing to do. Such commitments can encourage social intrapreneurs to innovate when new ideas require them to take on responsibilities above and beyond the traditional scope of their work.

Encouraging Social Intrapreneurs at All Levels

Companies create cultures conducive to social intrapreneurship at all levels through results-based systems of reward and recognition. This focus on results gave Ingersoll Rand junior staff member and social intrapreneur Mike Norelli the opportunity to develop a volunteer project that measured the carbon footprint of the organization's global manufacturing operations. When companies reward results and are open to input from all staff levels, social intrapreneurs feel comfortable leading grassroots initiatives that can grow to create major impacts.

The bottom line? While many factors go into creating a culture conducive to social intrapreneurship, a combination of, support structures, executive commitment, and an appreciation for new ideas can unlock the potential of employees to lead change within an organization.

Read more about the social intrapreneurs mentioned in this column in the full report available at

Josh Cleveland manages the Impact at Work program at Net Impact and was instrumental in developing "Making Your Impact at Work: A Practical Guide to Saving the World from Inside Any Company."

Image by Mart1n.