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An Introduction to Social Intrapreneurship

May 17, 2017

By: Achal Patel & Russell Gong


Management consultants are typically not thought about as impact designers, but five years ago, a team of young professionals in Deloitte Consulting LLP built a movement to drive social innovation towards the heart of the corporate business model.

This small group of purpose-driven employees developed and built D2international (D2i), a social innovation fellowship within the federal practice of Deloitte, with the intention that it would catalyze social innovation within the broader business. D2i started as a bridge to connect between a desire for millennial talent to have meaningful, experiential learning opportunities, and the unmet demand for professional services in the social enterprise sector. This initiative has since grown into an engine for social innovation that pursues a new model of impact that integrates core business objectives with social impact.

This essay is an introduction to a series exploring the impact of social intrapreneurship and is presented not only as a testimony of Deloitte’s own efforts but, more importantly, as the impetus for a broader conversation between people across disciplines striving to elevate the social impact of their existing practices. Lessons learned from D2i can be applied by other firms in various industries. 

Intrapreneurship: Change from the Inside

Since its inception, D2i has engaged over 1,000 Deloitte practitioners and currently operates across 10 countries and 17 social sector organizations with which the company has worked to build capacity and scale impact. Organizational monitoring and evaluation data shows that, with D2i, these organizations have collectively reached 1 million people in topical areas ranging from menstrual health management in Uganda to youth entrepreneurship and employment in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Concurrently, D2i has accelerated the development of purpose-driven employees within Deloitte that have found opportunities to connect learnings to other parts of the firm, along with federal and commercial clients.

The group of employees that catalyzed D2i, connecting core business objectives with social value, is part of an emerging group known as social intrapreneurs. Social intrapreneurs possess many of the same attributes as social entrepreneurs, but typically operate within (and are adept at navigating) large organizations. As described in The Social Intrapreneur: A Field Guide for Corporate Changemakers, social intrapreneurs operate in organizations across industries but are unified by “a passion for driving societal change through business in a way that generates long-term value for both their companies and communities.” Working inside major organizations, social intrapreneurs “develop and promote practical solutions to social or environmental challenges where progress is currently stalled by market failures … applying the principles of social entrepreneurship inside a major organization.” [1]

Lying dormant within large organizations are opportunities to channel existing resources to drive core business objectives concurrently with sustainable social or environmental benefit. By applying the tactics of a social intrapreneur, individuals can spark purposeful change within their organization.

Why Should Organizations Care about Social Intrapreneurs?

In today’s business environment, employees seek a greater desire for meaningful work, organizations are under performance pressures for continual improvement and innovation, and there is a greater expectation to evolve business models to better understand and connect with customers, collaborators, and communities.

Based on a recent Deloitte survey, 87% of millennials believe the success of a business should be measured in terms of more than just its financial performance. Similarly, Deloitte’s Global CEO Punit Renjen writes: “the fact is, business cannot succeed if society fails. Consider the implications of operating a business in an environment where people don’t have the money to buy what is being sold; where growing inequities manifest in civil unrest and elevated crime rates; where people don’t have access to the education required to do the jobs that need doing. So, yes, we all have a moral obligation to the communities in which we live and work, but for the business community, this is also a matter of self-preservation.” [2]

As organizations adapt their business models to remain competitive in this new environment, social intrapreneurs are making traditional Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) models look outdated and can enable organizations to transition across the spectrum from ‘business as usual’ towards a ‘social business.’


Moving across this spectrum towards ‘Social Business’ will help organizations respond to market pressures while driving core business objectives and social or environmental value. Five of these core business objectives are highlighted by recent Deloitte research on social impact corporate archetypes:

  1. Creating new market opportunities
  2. Taking regulatory relationships from reactive to proactive
  3. Inspiring, attracting, and retaining top talent
  4. Enhancing brand value with key stakeholders
  5. Building resilient, sustainable supply chains

The social intrapreneurs that created D2i enabled parts of Deloitte to shift from ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ to ‘Social Intraprise.’ Moving from limited alignment of socially-oriented initiatives and core business to using social impact initiatives as a mechanism to create new market opportunities. However, how do you get a large multinational corporation to truly become a ‘Social Business’ with extensions beyond disparate offices? While Deloitte is still working on the answer to that broader question, the growth of D2i has enabled us to better understand what it could look like.

The Evolution of D2i, Extension into RePurpose, and Learnings Along the Journey

As D2i grew each year, questions were asked by its leadership team regarding how the model could become bolder and how the team could extend meaningful impact beyond a small group of individuals going through the Fellowship. The questions evolved from testing the concept, to scaling, to thinking about what came after D2i:


achal-graph-2This series of questions that evolved from year to year represented shifts in how we innovated annually with the goal of driving towards a ‘Social Business’ model. The Social Intrapreneur: A Field Guide for Corporate Changemakers characterizes this innovation trajectory as moving from incremental to fundamental shifts. [3] For D2i, shifting operational processes began in Year 0 and Year 1, thinking through how to change how learning and development is conducted within Deloitte to be experiential, engaging, and drive social impact. In Year 2 and Year 3, the program expanded to offer services built and incubated within the D2i Fellowship program to the client marketplace. Finally, by Year 4 and beyond, RePurpose (a capability which seeks to activate social intrapreneurship concepts within Deloitte’s client marketplace) was launched.  RePurpose tests how to create new market opportunities and business models within Deloitte, connects social enterprise business models into client environments, and enables social intrapreneurs within Deloitte to play the connecting role in these relationships.

Social Intrapreneurship

In its presentation, the journey of D2i and RePurpose may seem linear and pragmatic; however, there are a multitude of learnings from roadblocks along the way. These roadblocks almost always emerged due to an inability to answer one (or more) questions in one of the following categories, which are part of the Social Movement Framework for Organizational Innovation presented in Changing Your Company from the Inside Out: [4]

achal-graph-3As D2i has grown over the years, and as RePurpose begins to get its footing, we have built a more nuanced understanding of opportunities not only to cultivate social intrapreneurs for the benefit of our own organization, but also – in our role as a professional services firm – to extend this value into client environments. This reflection and learning has informed how we are structured today but most certainly will not be our last iteration.

Sparking Social Intrapreneurship Within and Outside of Deloitte Today

By empowering individuals across the organization to identify and act on opportunities for social innovation, D2i and RePurpose not only build a distributed innovation network, but also a more effective approach for deep social impact that resonates with employees and is appropriate for the specific context of each part of the business and client environment.

Our current structure enables innovations both within our firm and our clients that drive business and social results:

Field-Tested Talent Pipeline: Over 100 practitioners have gone through D2i’s 14-week social innovation curriculum and field-based practicum. After the fellowship, most continue either as Fellowship leads or enabling social intrapreneurship within Deloitte or their client environment. This group has received rigorous training and brings a unique perspective and skill set to client service. They think about movements, not initiatives, and are constantly scanning their environment for opportunities to improve the way things are done. Recently, a team of former D2i Fellows built an experiential social impact program for select summer interns to better engage and equip interns with the skill sets needed to succeed as purpose-driven professionals.

Solution Incubator & Real-Time Solution Innovation Knowledge Base: The D2i Fellowship program serves as a real-world testing grounds for new approaches to training and development, capacity building, and design for social impact. By maintaining a low-risk space for experimentation and applied research, we stay agile and are able to pivot in a way that is traditionally difficult to do within a large firm. Additionally, with teams constantly engaged in identifying and supporting leading social entrepreneurs around the globe, we have our hands on real-time information about trends in business model innovation, growth strategy, impact measurement, and service delivery in hyper-local environments. This network is a source of new ideas and knowledge and is a strong pillar for open innovation. Coupled with a custom built technology product that acts as our library of solutions and our RePurpose capability, we can bring these innovations to our client marketplace.

Cultivated Social Impact Network: The D2i Fellowship program and RePurpose source high-impact partners from across the world. Because we offer a unique value exchange starting with top consulting talent, we have been able to build strong, trustful partnerships with organizations that are leading in their respective fields and regions. These relationships continue to grow over the years, so that we move from supporting them through capacity building to going to market together.

How Other Organizations Can Catalyze Social Intrapreneurship

While our approach within a professional services firm may lead to inspiration for some, we acknowledge that they may not be applicable for every industry. In addition to building movements within Deloitte, we have observed the following social intrapreneurship ‘launch pads,’ which are signals others can look for within their organization as a starting point to drive business and social good:

  1. Disconnects: are there opportunities for your organization to better connect with the communities and causes that you are organized to focus on?
  2. Adjacent Disconnects: are there opportunities to collaborate with other organizations in our ecosystem to create business and social value?
  3. Latencies: are there small pockets of ideas and purposeful innovations that are not reaching the scale to make meaningful change in the communities and/or are NOT tied back to the business?
  4. Purposeless Professional: are there employees and teams that are not connected to the mission of the organization or are not feeling the return of their labor?
  5. Impact messaging: does your organization face challenges around perception by external stakeholders (e.g., customers, collaborating, general public) that your organization is not connected to the communities you operate in and people you serve?

Our RePurpose team has used these launch pads – though certainly not exhaustive –  to signal social innovation opportunities in the client environment. Which signals have you noticed in your organization?

Social Intrapreneurship in Action Outside of Deloitte

While D2i and RePurpose highlight examples of social intrapreneurship centered on fundamentally changing  the talent development and deployment experience at Deloitte, social intrapreneurs across other industries have found ways to drive core business objectives along with social or environmental good in their own creative ways. Just a sampling of these innovations include:

  • Bloomberg has integrated environmental, social, and governance (ESG) metrics into one of its key products – The Terminal – to enable investors to understand their investments beyond just expected financial return. [5] 
  • Whole Foods held community meetings for two years before it entered the market in Detroit, building an understanding of community needs and concerns as customer and suppliers. Whole Foods also enabled residents to understand how to eat healthy on a limited budget and provided suppliers trainings to work with Whole Foods, leading to a successful opening of the food supplier in the city. [6] 
  • Banco Real incorporated sustainability training and development into its management, driving new initiatives, from offering micro-finance services in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to financing biodiesel manufacturing. [7] 
  • CannonDesign Open Hand Studio provided design services to those that would otherwise lack access to them with the belief that the process creates shared value for its people, communities, and clients.

While these examples differ from company to company, they share the common attribute of catalyzing untapped opportunities within their organizations to drive core business objectives concurrently with social impact. For Bloomberg, providing additional information to users of the organization’s product could help it better understand the decisions it was making and the impact those decisions had on environmental, social, and governance outcomes. For Whole Foods, building stronger connections with a new market the company was entering empowered residents to better understand how to make healthy dietary choices, while providing suppliers with greater economic opportunity. For Banco Real, enabling management to see the value of sustainability drove business opportunities for the organization. And finally, for CannonDesign, providing design services to those without access to them creates opportunities for the organization’s people to grow while building strong community connections.


Social intrapreneurs will face a variety of challenges within organizations to find opportunities, build compelling business cases, and enact the correct political savvy to make their innovations a reality. They will face questions – and rightfully so – about whether their time is being spent most effectively and how exactly their work is driving core business objectives forward. Along this journey, social intrapreneurs can learn from others in their organization about how to make change within a particular environment, be open to inspiration from outside sources and organizations, and hold onto the grit and fortitude required to succeed, understanding the end goal is worth building towards.

For D2i and RePurpose, shaping future change makers within Deloitte and impacting 1 million lives outside of Deloitte would have certainly taken longer, or perhaps not happened at all if social intrapreneurs did not catalyze the movements. But, more importantly, both programs are challenged and excited by what else lies ahead as untapped potential within Deloitte, and our clients can be harnessed to solve some of the world’s toughest challenges.

So, ask yourself, what is the cost of inaction? What are the opportunities that exist within your organization that are going untouched, and what are you going to do about it?

Achal Patel leads the build and go-to-market efforts for RePurpose, a capability within Deloitte to enable its clients to uncover and unleash opportunities to drive core business outcomes concurrently with social impact by applying social entrepreneurial models to their organizations. Previously at Deloitte, he was co-leading the D2international Social Innovation Fellowship, a program that, over the last 5 years, has engaged over 1,000 Deloitte practitioners and established operations across 10 countries and 17 organizations, and collaborating with the World Economic Forum & UN to better inform the response of private sector organizations in complex humanitarian crises. 

Russ Gong is a program director, social entrepreneur, film producer, and soldier. At Deloitte, he is the founder and Program Director for D2international – Deloitte’s social innovation program which connects the ingenuity and drive of the private sector towards solving the world’s toughest challenges. In media and film, Russ is the Executive Producer for Narratale Productions where he leads projects focused on “impact narratives” designed to unlock untold community stories around the world. He is a soldier with the Army National Guard passionate about defense and disaster response. Russ is a board member of the non-profit Catchafire and a lecturer at Georgetown McDonough School of Business.

With contributions from Kate Wharton, co-founder of D2international and currently COO of Hala Systems, Inc.


  1. SustainAbility. The Social Intrapreneur: A Field Guide for Corporate Changemakers, 17 April 2008.
  2. Punit Renjen, 2008.
  3. SustainAbility. The Social Intrapreneur: A Field Guide for Corporate Changemakers, 17 April 2008.
  4. Davis & White. Changing Your Company From The Inside Out, 2015.
  5. Davis & White. Changing Your Company From The Inside Out, 2015.
  6. Davis & White. Changing Your Company From The Inside Out, 2015.
  7. SustainAbility. The Social Intrapreneur: A Field Guide for Corporate Changemakers, 17 April 2008.

Images courtesy of Deloitte and Impact Design Hub. 

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