A group of former Clinton Foundation lawyers have taken the best practices they learned and are making for-profit social good a scalable endeavour. Foundations like Starbucks, United Nations and Chobani-adjacent Tent, as well as family foundations like Will and Jada Smith are helping more people and doing more for their social impact dollar by leveraging the best practices of Beyond Advisers.
We sat down with its founder and CEO, Scott Curran, to discuss his unique career path and how his background in law and experience working with the Clintons inspired his next steps. Scott also shares the growing importance of social impact today and offers some advice for those looking to help influence that impact, whether as a consultant or an organization doing good work.
Tell me about your background and why you pursued a career in law
At the time I applied to law school, the question wasn’t whether you’d have a job after law school, but which job you’d have and what direction you’d take with your career. So it was an exciting grad school option that had always intrigued me, even though there was an element of mystery about how I’d use it and where I’d go, instead of a specific desire to “be a lawyer” in a traditional sense. There was a bit of curiosity and excitement for me – which has continued throughout my career and still continues today! I initially wound up on a “traditional” path, practicing at a corporate law firm for about five years before taking the “nontraditional” detour to Arkansas (for a totally different grad school experience) and into philanthropy back in 2005. My career has been a wild ride since, none of which would have been possible without my legal education and experience.
I remain as bullish and optimistic as ever on the value of a legal education and life as a lawyer. I believe that the legal profession is one of the most important in human history and that now is one of the greatest times ever to be a lawyer! The need is great and innovation and opportunities within the law are exciting and inspiring. In all the social impact work I do, across sectors, a common through line is the important role of thoughtful, proactive, innovative lawyers and the opportunities for them to contribute to this exciting work.
I also teach a law school class called Lawyers as Social Innovators: An introduction to Social Impact Law, which highlights how the growing sphere of social impact work – transcending nonprofits, for-profits, social enterprises, and cross-sector partnerships – all need lawyers to help design, build, and grow this work. Law school grads and seasoned lawyers alike are seeking out this work. They love it, are inspired by it, and want to do more of it. So between client and talent demand, the profession – and especially law firms – need to pivot to meet that demand. It’s a really exciting time for lawyers and the law! My initial “why” of law school was driven by curiosity and opportunity. That remains a through line for me now and I’m just as (if not more) excited about the opportunities now as I was then!
What’s the story behind your social impact consulting firm Beyond Advisers?
In early 2015 I was contemplating leaving the General Counsel position at the Clinton Foundation (yes, “that” Clinton Foundation!). I knew it was likely the “biggest” job I’d leave and needed to decide what the best move would be. I also knew I had an incredibly valuable toolkit filled with the experience, resources, tools, and guidance that supported social impact work at scale across issue areas and organization types (from nonprofits to social enterprises to private sector work). It’s almost hard to describe the value of that toolkit since it was based on and proven to work for about every team working on every initiative across every area of the globe. My primary driver was how to determine whether it would work outside of the Clinton Foundation’s ecosystem (I suspected it would) and to what extent.
I had no intention of becoming a consultant as I had a pretty skeptical view of many consultants, having seen hundreds of all varieties come and go during my time at the Foundation with a real mixed bag as far as value delivered for fees paid. I knew I didn’t want to go into a traditional practice at a law firm. That option, while available, didn’t spark my curiosity or innovation-driven spirit and would confine the toolkit that excited me to too narrow a space. I also didn’t want to go in-house at another single non-profit. That also felt too narrow to me as the goal was to make the advice, guidance, and tools that comprised our toolkit available more widely in a way that could meaningfully help scale the sector and its work.
So taking a fresh look at all the factors and opportunities in front of me, and with no immediate urgency to leave (we were plenty busy at the Foundation at that time), I took a look at the landscape, the toolkit I thought was so valuable, and the best ways it could be deployed if I was thinking as big as possible about its use. That’s what ultimately gave rise to Beyond Advisers.
The original idea and a common through line for us is that we sought – and still seek – to connect the best advice, guidance, and tools in the world with the best ideas and efforts to change it. Over five years later, I can say that’s exactly what we’re doing, and we’re just getting started! We’ve got some big ideas about how to take the same toolkit and make it available to every one of the 1.5 million nonprofits, social enterprises, and corporate do-gooders in the US who might find it helpful too!
How important was your experience at the Clinton Foundation in shaping who you are and what you do today?
It was everything. And nothing I do now would be possible without that experience (just like nothing I did at the Clinton Foundation would have been possible without my legal experience prior to that). For all the Clinton Foundation has been through having been turned into a political football prior to and through the 2016 election, let me say that I’m insanely proud of and remain inspired by its work and my colleagues there. Notwithstanding the weaponization of the organization in the political arena (which was ultimately little more than a sideshow of mudslinging and innuendo), there’s simply no denying the core truths of its work.
It was one of the most dynamic, diverse, fast-growing talent magnets that was an inspiring and driving force in the global philanthropic movement of the early 2000’s. At warp speed, it went from being a small Arkansas-based foundation focused on building the Clinton Library to a global juggernaut that expanded its work, reach, and dynamic partnerships that put laser focus on moving the needle in global health, climate change, international development, supply chain innovation, global convenings to drive real change, childhood obesity, early childhood education, women and girls empowerment, and so much more.
The “worst” part of it all is 1) how much I miss all my other colleagues and the adrenaline-inducing work of the Clinton Foundation in its heyday; and 2) my continued anxiousness about taking what we learned from it further to scale. In my view, every organization working to make the world a better place should have the toolkit we’ve developed – which was squarely derived from our experience at the Clinton Foundation – and be able to use it in their work to the extent some/parts/all of it can be helpful. It’s why we do what we do at Beyond, it’s what I teach in my law school class, and it’s the nucleus of everything I think any and every social impact organization (nonprofit, social enterprise, or private sector initiative) should have access to.
What was the biggest takeaway from that experience?
The biggest takeaway is twofold. First, social impact is everywhere, regardless of sector, leader, or theory of change and everyone and every entity of every type has a social impact – positive, negative, or somewhere in between. Second, we must be intentional about the design, building, and execution of our work for the greater good. There are common issues and patterns in all of it. While every organization and initiative is special, none is actually that unique.
We need to standardize a certain set of principles and practices in our approach to social impact that lay the foundation for all that is built atop it. That worked seamlessly at the Clinton Foundation, it works just as seamlessly for each and every client we’ve served at Beyond, and I believe with every fiber of my being and every minute of my experience to date that it can work for any and every other social change agent on earth. Not that I have strong feelings about it…
Why does social impact matter in 2021, and why are more companies and organizations looking to improve in this area?
Every one of us and every organization on earth has a social impact. Period. There’s no escaping or denying it. The only questions are what that impact looks like (or should look like), how any/every organization is contributing to “doing more good, better,” and how to get there. Moreover, the market, capital, consumers, and talent alike are all increasingly demanding that social impact be woven into nearly every product and service in life.
Social impact work is no longer reserved to nonprofits and governments. It hasn’t been for a long time. Going back 50+ years we’ve seen “CSR” (Corporate Social Responsibility) efforts throughout the private sector (the equivalent in the law being “pro bono”), “charity” in the philanthropic sector, and “social programs” of government. Fast forward to today and we see updates and innovation in each of those sectors, expanded scopes, and blurred lines between and among them.
Nonprofits are innovating and acting more like businesses than ever before with earned revenue models, commercial co-ventures, and even mergers and acquisitions. Businesses are acting more like nonprofits than ever before, eschewing old school CSR work for far more dynamic social impact work where the “doing good” is woven into and part of the business model itself, no longer just funded by profits produced by that business model. And in between we see social enterprises and entirely new models and approaches from small L3Cs to B-Corps, to dynamic use of existing models that break the mold like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the Emerson Collective, and Omidyar Network just to name a few. That’s all in addition to major name brand foundations and corporate philanthropies, which are also innovating at breakneck speeds.
And not to be overlooked, government has always been a highly relevant part of the equation, remains so today, and will be in the future. There’s a multifaceted and symbiotic relationship with the government, which is critical to issues of scale, among others. To say nothing of the current events of recent months that provide a stark example of social impact and how cross-sector actors – from individuals to corporations to elected officials – rely on and impact one another in material ways.
Bottom line is that social impact is here and isn’t going anywhere, is more in demand than ever before (a trend that is only going to grow), and being intentional about it is a business, social, and societal imperative.
In what ways do companies and organizations typically fail in the area of social impact?
Awareness and planning. Awareness: Being aware of the reality that every organization has a social impact and must be intentional about it is the first blindspot and opportunity to pivot toward a social impact growth mindset. Planning: We’ve all heard that “failing to plan is planning to fail.” And when it comes to social impact, failure is not an option! The world and future generations to follow are depending on us!
With society undergoing major changes during the pandemic what predictions do you have for the future of social impact in business?
Explosive growth and innovation. Pandemics, civil unrest, challenges to the core pillars that hold up civil society, in addition to other intractable challenges already emphasizing the point, all sharpen the focus on the importance of attention to the role each and every one of us (individuals and organizations alike) play as social actors in our shared world.
It’s not possible to sit on the sidelines anymore. We all know that the world is increasingly hot, flat and crowded. Pandemics and civil unrest are just the latest amplifiers. But we saw way before 2020 that corporate actors were moving from an exclusive shareholder primacy focus to a broader, more inclusive (and I’d argue more accurate) focus on stakeholder focus. Hat tip to Jamie Dimon and the Business Roundtable for that one. We’ve seen the growing work of nonprofits, social enterprises, and cross sector partnerships innovating and scaling at an unprecedented clip. And their work, their voices, and their relevance is greater than ever during these times. I’ve even seen and helped lawyers and law firms pivoting their practices to more purposefully feature their commitments to social impact writ large, far beyond pro bono alone.
Bottom line is that the opportunity to do good while doing well is greater than ever. Growth and innovation are the order of the day for everyone in this space. And we’re increasingly attuned to the fact that everyone is indeed in this space!
What are the most frequent or daunting challenges encountered when working with a client?
When we’re a good fit and engagement is properly defined, there are very few challenges. We work primarily with growth stage nonprofits, social enterprises, and/or cross-sector initiatives (i.e. not startups or crisis clients). So these clients have usually experienced enough challenges to know the value we bring in helping them design, build, and grow for even greater successes and to avoid/fix/design against the challenges they’ve already experienced. When we’re in our sweet spot with clients, the enthusiasm, optimism, and hunger for what we offer them is usually high and challenges are few.
With some larger or older organizations, we can bump into structural or budget limitations, or the classic “we’ve always done it this way” or its counterpart “we’ve never done it that way.” And only occasionally we’ll find someone who overlooks the practical value of a simple tool – whether that be a policy, procedure, practice, or template that seems overly simple to them. But a reminder that the tools and their simplicity are born of deep experience and continued refinement and are supported by proven best practices usually gets those rare situations back on track.
On the whole, our clients are eager, enthusiastic partners with whom we find few bumps on the road we travel together. It’s a really nice way to work!
What sets your firm apart from those that provide similar services?
Though we are not a law firm and don’t provide legal advice, our experience provides a foundation of depth and breadth, attention to detail, issue spotting and pattern recognition that uniquely develops from the role of being leaders of a legal team like the one we developed at the Clinton Foundation. That’s usually the point of entry and greatest interest for most of our clients. We add on other practice areas and expertise of other team members from there, becoming full service in the social impact space like few others can, while still being a boutique consultancy. That model is unique to Beyond. Oh, we’re also super fun to work with (but that’s not necessarily unique to us – most folks in this space are pretty awesome)!
What advice do you have for those wishing to go into the field of social impact? What traits are most valued in your field?
As far as advice, become AMAZING at something of value to the social impact marketplace. It’s a large, growing, and increasingly diverse industry. There’s plenty of need and incredible growth opportunities. So whatever your professional skillset, passion, or focus, become amazing at it, develop a keen sense of awareness of how it can help social impact clients, and be meticulously awesome about it.
As to traits that are valued, curiosity to find and see new solutions, proactive thinking to creatively design and execute new and different approaches, issue spotting ability, the capacity to continually iterate on ideas, and being adept at collaborating with others across industries and professional skillsets. Also, enthusiasm and optimism are essential.
It’s an extraordinary field that increasingly needs great, experienced, and enthusiastic talent. Join us!