ABN AMRO Frontrunners spread their wings as social intrapreneurs

How do you motivate your employees to make their social ideas a reality? With the Frontrunner Challenge, ABN AMRO is encouraging fifty of its employees to develop their ideas into ready-made concepts as part of a small team of like-minded co-workers. The Challenge imposes relatively few formal constraints, but the ideas submitted do have to serve a social purpose and be based on a solid business model. For Social Impact Innovation Manager Ella Romijn, the Challenge is a dream come true.

Ella worked on the bank’s Reboot programme a few years ago. She says, “Reboot coalesced around two problems we were seeing. The first was that there were highly talented refugees who couldn’t find work here in the Netherlands. The second was that the bank was struggling to meet a shortage of IT staff. Reboot effectively achieved two aims at once, and the bank has since welcomed 24 new members of staff thanks to the programme. Last year, we opened up Reboot to positions in other departments. The initiative was born out of the spontaneous enthusiasm of a group of employees and grew to become a community success story.” Reboot has since become an integral part of ABN AMRO's diversity programme. On April 8 at the Dutch Business Summit on Refugees, the bank committed to employ 80 refugees before 2022.

Selling ideas

So the Frontrunner Challenge is supposed to facilitate more initiatives of this sort? “Yes, that’s the idea. We’re still in the early stages of the programme, but each of the ideas the participants have floated is an inspiring initiative. We’re seeing that the Challenge is generating lots of energy not just within the teams themselves, but also throughout the organisation thanks to the participants’ enthusiasm. And that’s exciting.” What are some of the ideas the participants are working on? “Our participants will soon be pitching their projects to the outside world, so I don’t want to go into too much detail and steal their thunder. But I can say that their ideas involve everything from sustainable fashion to education and community building. One of the teams has even come up with its own brand name.”

What exactly do you mean by pitching? “Once the participants have worked out their ideas, we encourage them to go public with them and look for partners to help take them further. These might be businesses, civil society organisations or even potential investors in or outside the bank. At the end of the Challenge, they have to produce a viable concept. If it relies on collaboration with other stakeholders, which social initiatives often do, it’s important to get them on board at the earliest possible stage.” And the participants are expected to do all this on the job? “Yes, they spend about five to ten per cent of their time working on the Challenge over a six-month period. I think it’s great that ABN AMRO supports this type of initiative.”

Connecting with clients

How does the bank benefit? “For one thing, the project fits with our sustainable strategy to accelerate the shift towards sustainability. But the Frontrunner Challenge also enables staff to develop their talents – talents which in some instances they can’t put to good use in their day-to-day work. Conversely, the energy and inspiration they get from the programme translate into new insights and ideas on the job. We’re also hoping that the project will eventually foster unique initiatives with a positive impact on society and perhaps even on our own services.” So do you see an opportunity here to get clients involved? “I think that would be fantastic. Once the Frontrunner teams start pitching, we may see interconnections between their ideas and the bank’s business clients or civil society organisations which bank with us. I can also see us presenting certain ideas to private clients interested in impact investing.”

Making sustainable breakthroughs

The Frontrunner Challenge concept is not a new one. “That’s right. A few years ago, the bank had two teams which participated in De Partnership Verkiezing [Partnership Election],” says Ella. “Basically, the only difference between it and our own programme is that the Partnership Election was open to participants from multiple organisations.” The Punchy Pack, which facilitated the Partnership Election, is now overseeing the Frontrunner Challenge for ABN AMRO. Social entrepreneur Chantal Inen owns The Punchy Pack, which links existing organisations with new ideas, translating them into sustainable breakthroughs. “The Punchy Pack is supporting the intrapreneurs in the Frontrunner Challenge step by step to develop their ideas,” Ella continues. “Soon we’ll have a sustainable business model for each idea. We’re also in the process of establishing a Board of Believers made up of ABN AMRO employees to assess the final concepts. These board members will be available in subsequent stages to help participants implement and launch the concept. Their role is to ensure that the teams continue to have the resources and support they need once the programme is over.”

Can you tell us a little bit about the participants? “We felt it was important that the project should involve a cross section of the organisation. A nice bonus is that our intrapreneurs include a number of staff from our bank in Germany. They’re always so enthusiastic about coming here to take part.” Are there plans to hold a second Challenge? “That depends on the current programme,” says Ella. “We launched the Frontrunner Challenge with clear objectives, so we first need to determine whether these have been met. Plus it has to make sense from a business perspective. Ultimately, it’s all about how successful the sustainable concepts are. Together with the organising team, The Punchy Pack and our ambassadors, I plan to help the Frontrunner Challenge teams achieve the sustainable impact they’re aiming for – even after the programme is over.”

For Challenge participant Haydar Bayrak, the future is about creating a bond

“I’ve been so inspired taking part in the Challenge. In our meetings, everyone has such a positive outlook and is genuinely interested in what the others are up to. The minute you put something out there, you get loads of free ideas back. Our idea is about creating a bond between clients and the bank. It’s called ‘Op de bank bij de bank’ [roughly ‘Banking couch potato-style’, a play on the Dutch word bank, which means both ‘bank’ and ‘sofa’].”

For Renate Bakker, the Challenge has been a great learning process

“I get a lot of positive energy from the meetings, as well as excellent feedback. Our aim is to build an ecosystem around circular education. That’s obviously a very broad field. But our supervisors help us identify the right contacts and keep us focused without losing sight of our objective. They also challenge us to stay alert to what the world is waiting for.”