Breaking Silos: How can social entrepreneurs and corporate intrapreneurs build great partnerships?


Social entrepreneurs are innovating to create opportunities for low-income people. Meanwhile, corporate employees – social intrapreneurs – are pioneering business innovations with social impact. This discussion will deep-dive into exciting ways in which both are working together to drive greater innovation and impact.


To coincide with a session that Business Fights Poverty is hosting at the Skoll World Forum, with The League of Intrapreneurs, Ashoka and the Intrapreneur Lab, we would like to get your thoughts and ideas on building partnerships between social entrepreneurs and corporate Intrapreneurs.


  • What are the potential benefits of building partnerships between social entrepreneurs and corporate intrapreneurs?  Can you share any specific examples?
  • What are some of the key challenges, and how can these be overcome?
  • What are the lessons for making such partnerships work for both partners?


Please share your thoughts below!


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Let's move on to the second question:

What are some of the key challenges, and how can these be overcome?

In our network (, people from each sector are able to connect and conduct business in a member-to-member environment that reduces the barriers that usually exist between corporate and nonprofit interests.  

Our premise is that nonprofits ARE businesses, and have many of the same needs for service and products as other businesses; but they do not typically pursue or invite business relationships as part of their ongoing mission work.  

On the other side of the coin, businesses are often frustrated with failed efforts at marketing to a sector that often refuses to behave like a market.  It's a missed opportunity on both sides.  Our solution is a shared network with unique incentives to pursue mutual benefit for each partner.  

We have grown to more than 13,000 members now and gain more than 100 new profiles a month.      

Examples would be Colour ADD working to find solutions for colour blind people. Instead of building a social enterprise project that would exist as a separate entity, Color ADD teamed up with an intrapreneur at a pencil company to embed its social project in the business's products. Great impact now moving towards the clothing industry, tube stations, etc  

Particularly interesting to hear Bob Annibale who launched Citi's micro finance division within the bank answering a question on how he initially convinced senior leadership to proceed with the initiative - he said 'they were my peers...we understood each other and the environment within which we both operated'.

Matt that sounds like a great platform. 

One issue that people that identified in our face-to-face session earlier today at Skoll was the difficulty that some social entrepreneurs and NGOs have in finding the right people inside companies.  One bit of advice was to clearly identify and build relationships with champions, decision makers and implementers.  These are almost certainly going to be different people in a large organisaiton.  The reverse is also true if a corporate intrapreneur is looking to engage with a large NGO.

A key challenge for us was/is essentially cultural bias: the assumptions by nonprofits about business interests and tactics are often negative, and we've heard a common suite of similarly negative assumptions about charities as potential business partners from the corporate side.  Breaking down those biases through communication and demonstration of mutual benefit has been a chief goal of our network.   

Some of the challenges are trust, fear of mutual benefits and some time it will be a issues of patent rights..  in some cases it happens due to other external factors like serious structural problems or other policy related factors in getting their businesses off the ground and in establishing their products in the target markets.

 Due to lack of long-term commitments from the both end, many innovations die before it mature. To overcome these challenges the corporate and social entrepreneurs should have long term MOU from the innovation-to-innovation roll out stage 

I've heard much of the same issues, Matt. I think this boils down to a challenge around building empathy across the silos. 

It would seem, the most immediate problem/question is how do social entrepreneurs even begin to discuss ways of working together with big business given this asymmetrical relationship. Experience has shown that it is almost impossible to even get them (big business) to discuss possible ways/partnerships.Could anyone suggest how through this forum we could do this? Is there also some way other than by invitation only that big business could partner with big ideas from the small social entrepreneurs? 

Caroline Guyot made a good point earlier about achieving greater scale faster by partnering with corporate intrapreneurs. Is there a publicly listed network of corporate intrapreneurs that one can look at to find likely partners? I spent the last six years working in Nigeria with local companies. It was hard to find people in international corporations to work with.

From the social entrepreneur perspective, in many cases it is about finding the right partner who shares similar values. Finding the 'intrapreneur' within a company will be a more powerful alliance that struggling against a leadership vacuum inside businesses. Bringing intrapreneurs and social entrepreneurs together to co-create could be very powerful. 

One challenge is that strong partnerships are typically ones with human connections and deep trust between partners. And, yet, if one partner moves on, the partnership will struggle. The question we need to solve for is how to create partnerships based on personal trust while also institutionalizing the partnership -- moving beyond the individuals.  

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