What Do Intrapreneurs in the Non-Profit World Look Like?

They look like mission-focused champions who can balance stakeholder needs and stick to disciplined processes
What Do Intrapreneurs in the Non-Profit World Look Like?

By Alain Mootoo


Pursuing intrapreneurship in the non-profit sector can be both exciting and challenging. It frequently means working to foster innovation in an environment that can be very political and where conflicting forces – such as healthcare and social services – can often seem as if they are unintentionally working against one another. Breakthroughs, however, are extremely rewarding: when you can innovate within these complex systems, you can really make an impact for the community and the people you are supporting.

Go slowly – and know your audience

As an intrapreneur in the non-profit sector, you’ll need patience. While I love solving problems, I’ve learned that it’s important not to rush into situations with solutions. Instead, it’s worth sitting with a question or problem for a while so that you don’t risk implementing sub-optimal solutions. At the same time, I think it is critical to learn from setbacks and to develop resilience when something fails, rather than getting discouraged or demoralized by it.

Because working in the non-profit sector means serving such diverse stakeholders, it is also important to develop adaptive leadership skills. That means getting comfortable with leading or following, depending on the issue or the audience. I may love talking and being in charge, but as a vice president of finance, I may not be the best messenger if, for example, we’re dealing with an audience of caregivers or family members of people who have autism. It may make sense instead to have a client or family member do the speaking.

The non-profit sector is highly collaborative, with healthcare environments taking a particularly people-centric, bottom-up approach. Innovation means empowering diverse stakeholders to come up with ideas, rather than imposing them from leaders or from people outside of the sector. I have learned that anything viewed as inauthentic or as having its own agenda risks not being accepted by its stakeholders.

Champion what you believe in

Intrapreneurs really need to champion an innovation culture. You have to encourage disruption and experimentation. If you want to scale innovation, however, you also have to formalize processes and systems to have a larger impact. It’s important to find that balance: creating the space for disruption as well as for scaling.

As an example, the organization I work for, Surrey Place Centre, has 25 different programs supporting individuals at different stages in their lives. Essentially, we manage a portfolio of innovation. That requires us to have a broad perspective across that portfolio, as well as a mindset that allows individuals to go deeply in specific areas of innovation while balancing perspectives to ensure success.

Good communication is key to that success, especially when you are dealing with diverse stakeholders both inside and outside your organization. It is also important to have people you can go to for guidance and advice. These can be people who would be viewed as ‘traditional’ for your sector, but also those who are outside your sector and have a different way of seeing things.

It is clear that the non-profit sector is now demanding a lot more innovation than it once did. We are looking at more collaborative, innovative solutions for long-term social challenges that we have not yet been able to move the dial on. That’s one of the reasons I’m pursuing a Master’s in Management and Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Smith School of Business: I wanted to expand my own skillset and be better positioned to meet these challenges.

Formalize your plans

I find that while the non-profit sector has tended to be quite informal, I am seeing more formalized innovation plans using a lot more data, a lot more research, and a lot more documentation to engage stakeholders and build the credibility we need to get the funding that will help us scale our innovations.

A big part of our innovation work involves looking at the funding model. It means looking at the entire non-profit sector and doing a lot of prospecting. It means asking ‘who is going to fund my innovation?’ and realizing that it might not necessarily be the funder we have today. It could be a city, a provincial or federal government, a private foundation, or a corporation. In an ideal world, you would get a mixture of all of those sources so that you are able to sustain your innovation.  

Lastly, we have the question of success. What does it look like? In the non-profit sector, it looks like leadership that is particularly mission-focused. Where the for-profit sector might be motivated by profit or market share, in the non-profit sector we focus on multiple measures of success that are ultimately tied to that mission, which is usually some population outcome. Ultimately, I believe that success is very collaborative.


Alain Mootoo is vice president, finance and administration, at Surrey Place Centre, a Toronto-based organization that helps children, youth, and adults living with developmental disabilities and autism spectrum disorder. He has more than 20 years related experience in both the non-profit and for-profit sectors. He is pursuing a Master’s in Management and Innovation & Entrepreneurship at Queen's Smith School of Business.

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