Faculty Publication Spotlight: Stephanie Berzin on ‘Intrapreneurship’ in Social Innovation

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Stephanie Berzin

In the most recent installment of Innovate’s series highlighting research publications from faculty members at the Boston College School of Social Work, we highlight a commentary from Stephanie Berzin and Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes on “Social Innovation from the Inside: Considering the Intrapreneurship Path.” The paper first appeared in the journal Social Work.

The issue: Most of the current literature on social innovation is focused on an entrepreneurial path to effecting change – in short, building new organizations to solve social problems. But schools of social work focus much of their work on assisting existing organizations. For this reason, many in the field have either dismissed, or ignored, opportunities to participate in projects related to social innovation.

However, the reality is, social workers are nimble thinkers who are constantly adapting in order to improve capacity and leadership in the sector; they just happen to usually go to where the people already are. “Social workers need to stand up and say ‘social innovation does apply to us,’” says Berzin. “We need to rewrite the literature so that intrapreneurship is an equally regarded, equally funded model for innovation, and then create an academic dialogue engaging social innovation with social work.”

The commentary: This article from Berzin and Pitt-Catsouphes is meant as a step for getting this conversation started. In the piece, they delineate an argument for why intrapreneurship is a complementary path for social innovation, listing three principle reasons for “strengthening the capacities of social services organizations to develop, implement, and sustain social innovations.” These include:

  • Individuals at existing human services organizations bring expertise, historical knowledge, working relationships with frontline workers, and deep-rooted understanding of social issues to the work.
  • Existing organizations can leverage social capital to pursue the collaborative relationships needed for innovation. Organizations working in a particular field often already have developed the types of strong cross-sector partnerships needed to launch new initiatives.
  • Many social services organizations have resources that can support social innovation efforts. In pursuing the intrapreneurial approach, resources and energy can be focused on the new products or services rather than on developing organizational infrastructure.

Berzin and Pitt-Catsouphes end the article with a call to prepare for the future.

“We believe a comprehensive approach is critical, one that embraces not only the entrepreneurial path to innovation, but also the intrapreneurship path and strengthening of existing organizations,” they write. “There is a need for research, examples, cases, and teaching materials that support this approach. Given the intellectual and social capital that social services organizations can bring to social innovation, it is incumbent on social work leaders to identify ways to stimulate social innovation at existing agencies. Rather than waiting for new social entrepreneurs to emerge or training organizations to develop a single social innovation project, the real challenge is to leverage the existing strengths of our human services networks and create organizations that can successfully engage in social innovation again and again.”

The next steps: According to Berzin, this need for empirical examples of success is the key next step in establishing the natural synergies between social innovation and social work in our nation’s leading institutions of higher learning. She is hard at work to begin to build this data in her role as Co-Director of BCSSW’s Social Innovation Lab (SIL). SIL projects include:

  • The SIL is working directly with the New York and Boston-based non-profit Birthday Wishes, to help them improve upon their existing volunteer model for delivering birthday gifts to underprivileged children.
  • The lab is working directly with Youth Venture to build entrepreneurial skills in vulnerable youth (through an intraprenurial approach to creating a more sustainable environment for Youth Ventures itself).
  • Berzin and colleagues at the United Way and BCSSW are in the beginning stages of creating a data collection model in order to better understand capacity and focus within the more than 200 existing organizations within the United Way’s portfolio.

Berzin is also hard at work on a book about innovation from within that she hopes will be both a text for higher education and practitioners alike. “The book is a why and how for social workers on using innovation as a tool to build organizations into the future,” she explains. 

With the help of BCSSW’s Social Innovation Lab, some social service agencies are beginning to adapt innovation models into their work. To learn more about what these pioneers are already doing, read Berzin and Pitt-Catsouphes’ earlier report “Leading the Way: Social Innovation in Massachusetts.” And be sure to check out their Social Work commentary in its entirety.

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