Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Scott Curran of Beyond Advisors Is Helping To Change Our World

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Relationships matter. Put people first, and you can get through anything. Fail to do so and whatever you’re working through will be harder than it needs to be. I was once at a point where the behavior of others caused me to question the value of relationships. But that was a short and intense period. Since then I’ve learned that in business and in life relationships are all that matter.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Scott M. Curran.

Scott M. Curran is an attorney, entrepreneur, social impact adviser, and the founder and CEO of consulting firm Beyond Advisers. He helps world-leading innovators design, build, and grow their organizations and initiatives for impact.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I began my career as a 24-year-old corporate attorney with no intention of staying in that role indefinitely. Surprisingly, I have now become one of the happiest lawyers, despite having what many would consider a “nontraditional” legal career. After first practicing corporate law for five years at a law firm, I decided to take a detour from my path in 2005 and pursue a Masters of Public Service degree in Arkansas. Originally planned as an 18-month experience, this decision turned into a whirlwind that has now lasted almost two decades!

As part of the Public Service master’s program, I became an intern at the Clinton Foundation at the age of 31 in 2006. My internship led to a one-year Fellowship focused on rural philanthropy, which ultimately resulted in the “accidental” establishment of the in-house legal department at the Clinton Foundation. This marked the beginning of a ten-year journey, during which I eventually became General Counsel, leading a team of 16 in-house members and collaborating with almost a dozen “BigLaw” outside law firms to support the global endeavors of one of the most impactful and scrutinized nonprofits in history.

In January 2015, I initially attempted to depart from the Foundation, long before the 2016 Presidential election results were known and when everyone assumed a different outcome. However, I failed to meet my early departure timeline and remained with the team until 2016, when I finally left the General Counsel role. Despite my departure, when I established my own consulting firm, the Clinton Foundation became my first client and I continued to work with them throughout the rest of the year of my departure. Fate seemed to play a role, as they remain a client today as our team continues to support the work of the recently restarted Clinton Global Initiative.

After leaving the Clinton Foundation, despite my aversion to the idea of becoming a consultant (I’d seen far too many fail to deliver value promised), that’s exactly what I became! In the fall of 2015, I founded Beyond Advisers, a social impact consultancy. My hunch was that nonprofits, social enterprises, and cross-sector social impact initiatives could benefit from having the simplified success strategies and scalable approaches that we had relentlessly refined for ease of understanding and use in our work. The framework and toolkit we had developed had repeatedly proven effective, even amidst the intense scrutiny faced during the 2016 election, when the Foundation was turned into a political football. It turned out that our hunch was correct as we have been incredibly busy serving amazing clients every day since with our unique approach to supporting social impact work at scale across nonprofits, social enterprises, and corporate social impact initiatives.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Two answers to this one.

First, what’s most interesting to me/us as a firm — which is that simplicity is the common thread/solution. Second, what’s most interesting to others is that super famous people and organizations are working incredibly hard to do more good than ever before (and we’re fortunate to call several of them our clients).

What’s most interesting to me is that simplicity is at the heart of our greatest work, best client success stories, and the scale of the solutions we offer. When we initially set out to build this consulting firm, we expected to find complex challenges that required complex solutions — really hard governance, compliance, legal, and operations challenges. It turned out that the vast majority of the time the issues, challenges, and solutions were remarkably simple. We’d literally find ourselves asking “is it really this simple?” and most of the time it was. Now…it was still hard work to implement the solutions and changes at the client level much of the time, but the solution and path was still simple. And over time we learned that our ability to identify challenges and simple solutions was the result of our 10 years of intensive work that revealed the pattern recognition that helped us quickly identify the issue and solution. But at the end of the day we have found it so interesting that the greatest challenges have simple solutions. This is also what puts rocket fuel into our desire to share and scale these solutions throughout the industries we serve. There’s a lot of hard work involved, but so many of the challenges in social impact involve simple, scalable, and sustainable solutions.

What’s most interesting to others about our work is usually the delight that comes with learning from the high-profile people and organizations who are leveraging their platforms and passion for purpose through their social impact initiatives. While we’re a small shop and don’t do any advertising or marketing to speak of, our client list is a who’s who of big businesses, brands, and brains. Once you start looking, you see social impact work everywhere. Massive brands — from Starbucks to Chobani; Major celebrities from Beyonce and Sean Penn to Will Smith (did you know Beyonce has a Director of Social Responsibility and that Lil Nas X is the Chief Impact Officer for Taco Bell — right?); and billionaire families (some of which are household names and others aren’t) are increasingly working hard to maximize their social impact far beyond checkbook charity and other traditional efforts. It’s super interesting, exciting, and important.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

With the benefit of hindsight, I’d say that the funniest mistake was questioning whether there would be a demand for our services.

We all have a bit of imposter syndrome. And when you’re starting out, that’s amplified. When you’re starting something that is completely new and unique your imposter’s syndrome can skyrocket…and it did. While there were other social impact agencies, and a world full of various consultancies, there was no firm quite like ours. So right up until business started booming (which it did — quickly) with truly amazing clients, I was nervous.

Almost 8 years later we’re busy as ever, have long-time clients we’ve been serving for years, and have a waitlist for new client engagements.

One other mistake…we charged WAY too little at first. Now this was ultimately not a mistake as we delighted clients, overdelivered for the fee charged. That was a great way to make some happy clients at first, but would absolutely be a mistake if we were continuing that now!

Lesson: Have faith in what makes your product or service unique, make your value crystal clear, and charge what you’re worth!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Yes, we’re sharing our social impact framework and toolkit with the world in as many ways as we can!

We’re on a mission to share the framework and toolkit behind two decades of successful social impact work. With a unique vantage point at the intersection of law, philanthropy, and consulting, we’ve supported leading nonprofits, corporate social impact initiatives, and social enterprises, gaining ever more valuable insights along the way.

We’ve identified, codified, and simplified the common elements of successful social impact work. For the past eight years, we’ve been equipping clients with this framework and toolkit. Now, we’re working on a book and other methods to share it at scale because the work is too important to keep to ourselves. Stay tuned as we empower changemakers with the advice and tools needed to make a real difference.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

There are so many! I’ll offer one from our past and one from our present.

In the “past” (though we are still proudly working with his foundation), Bill Clinton set a vision for his post-presidency and I was fortunate to have my professional life intersect with the early years of the Clinton Foundation. I got my foot in the door at an opportune time and rose within the organization from doing program work to starting the legal department and ultimately leaving from the position of General Counsel, having worked with and supported over 4,000 colleagues working in over 40 countries on more than a dozen initiatives. While Bill Clinton may be a lot of things to a lot of people, to me he (and the Foundation he, Hillary and Chelsea all now lead) is someone who sets big bold goals to solve hard challenges, articulates a clear vision to achieve them, empowers teams to achieve them, marshalls the support necessary to do so, pivots when necessary, and maintains relentless optimism in the face of daunting circumstances. Having experienced that kind of leadership directly for a decade was like playing in a social impact all-star game for a full decade. Only through that experience are we now uniquely able to serve similarly motivated and ambitious clients. It was — and remains — the personal and professional privilege of a lifetime that will serve me, our team, and our clients (and I hope the world) well for the rest of my lifetime.

As to the present, Dr. Carmen Rojas, is the CEO of the Marguerite Casey Foundation and we’ve had the privilege of working with Carmen as she has led multiple organizations. Like President Clinton, Carmen’s extraordinary vision, enthusiasm, and relentless dedication to innovate and positively disrupt philanthropy is rocket fuel for the social impact soul and makes for incredibly fun work. She is not only a valued client but an inspiration. She is also fun, funny, and energetic. People follow optimists. She’s both serious about creating positive social impact with a sense of urgency and an optimist about the ability to do so in new and dynamically disruptive ways.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

First, recognize and embrace that every individual and organization has an impact!

Every product, service, purchase, policy, and position has an impact. This realization alone calibrates the mind towards greater awareness of the realities of impact.

Second, be intentional about that impact.

Starting with the current impact footprint of your work and/or life, be intentional about building that footprint for greater impact. Whether a business leader working to make a difference with their business model; a nonprofit seeking to make its work standout in a crowded philanthropic landscape; a politician seeking to develop policy positions; or an individual deciding where to direct their time, talent, and treasure, being intentional is always good for growing one’s impact footprint.

Third, tell the story!

The greatest way to elevate awareness of the impact you or your organization are having and attract greater resources and support for your work is to tell the story! From the challenge you’re addressing, to the unique way in which you are doing so, to the results of your work — these are the core of impact storytelling.

This is a 3 part-winning combination for how anyone can make a difference in new, specific, and measurable ways that produce results and provide an example that will inspire others to do the same.

And we need it now more than ever.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

My definition is guiding others to a common cause driven by shared vision and selfless commitment to action in service of the greater good.

A helpful frame I use and try to follow is remembering the difference between being a boss vs. being a leader. Everyone can be a leader. And you don’t have to be the boss to be one. In fact, I’ve observed a lot of bosses who aren’t great leaders. And I see leadership potential among people at every level of an organization and all around us in the world. I don’t love the phrase “future leaders” (I prefer “emerging leaders” as an alternative) because I think everyone is a leader and/or has the potential to contribute leadership.

As to example, the Clinton Foundation experience is a great one. There’s no question whose name was on the door. And in that regard you’d think the world of that work would revolve around one or more of the Clintons — and it often did. But when you looked throughout that organization at any given time during its biggest and busiest years — you saw leaders everywhere! Every initiative had one or more leaders. The Board was full of incredible leaders, the operations team had incredible leaders, all of our programs and partners had incredible leaders. And I think most everyone felt empowered as leaders. You didn’t have to be a Clinton to feel like or contribute as a leader. And that was probably one of the most incredible things about working there for 10 years.

The novelty of the name on the door (any door in any organization) wears off quickly. Time spent with famous principals of any big name organization is limited. But the work that exists day to day is real, and when you’re empowered to bring your full leadership potential to the work you do every day, you’ll feel like a leader because you’ve been empowered to become one — whether your name is on the door or not!

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

First, Relationships matter. Put people first, and you can get through anything. Fail to do so and whatever you’re working through will be harder than it needs to be. I was once at a point where the behavior of others caused me to question the value of relationships. But that was a short and intense period. Since then I’ve learned that in business and in life relationships are all that matter.

Second: Become good at something before expecting to be great at anything. In a world of desire for immediate rewards and to be all things to all people as quickly as possible, we all want to be top performers and in-demand resources to others as quickly as we can. But adding long term value by being really good at something is the best way to become great at anything. This is an easily overlooked lesson, but one that is super important to long-term value creation. Related book recommendation on this topic: “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” by Cal Newport.

Third: Ask questions (see also: don’t be afraid to say you don’t know)! We all start at the beginning. We all have to learn. Nobody has all the answers. Acknowledging you don’t know something and then asking great questions is the way through this reality. I’ve seen so many try to “fake it til they make it” or put up false confidence. We’ve all done it. But I’ve also seen great relief and great humanity in people who acknowledge they don’t know something and set out a plan to learn it. Never be afraid to acknowledge a knowledge deficit and ask great questions to shore it up! Learning is a lifetime process for us all, and a super fun part of the adventure.

Fourth: Focus on simplicity! “Simplicity is the ultimate elegance” is true. But simple is hard. Nonetheless, it is preferable in almost all circumstances you can think of. Would you prefer a complex set of directions or a simple set? Would you prefer to have a 10 page answer or an equally effective 1 line answer to a question? If you were consulting a lawyer (or anyone else) about something important and they answered “Well, it depends” and then offered a multiple part analysis of potential outcomes, or would you prefer someone to give you a simple top line answer and then offer to walk you through simplified sets of additional considerations? The ideal answer will always skew towards simplicity. But simplicity is hard! So people often default to the complex. But if you stick with relentless simplification, you’ll find that you’ll be more efficient, effective, and impactful in almost every way. And clients will even pay you more for simplicity than the complex alternatives.

Fifth: Stay curious! Curiosity will lead you to amazing places and opportunities. It is STILL taking me to amazing new places. Everything I’ve done in my professional career = from a traditional route through law school and corporate law practice to leaving that practice for a Masters Degree in Public Service, to becoming an intern at the age of 31, to taking an entry-level job at the Clinton Foundation with no obvious connection to a logical next step, to multiple opportunities, reinventions, and career risks that followed — all led me to greater opportunities and successes. That pattern has never ended for me and keeps revealing new and exciting entrepreneurial adventures, each building on the last in unexpected but exciting ways! All thanks to remaining endlessly curious! Now…be smart, super deliberate, and not haphazard in the process, but don’t ever lose the curiosity that may take you on an exciting new path!

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Any actual influence I have comes from being able to help others simplify the hardest parts of “doing good well” by equipping them with the advice, guidance, and tools they need that are otherwise hard to find, challenging to cobble together effectively once found, and/or prohibitively expensive. I was fortunate to sit in a seat where I saw this vast, diverse, almost overwhelming amount of resources come together in one place (the Clinton Foundation) for an intensive period of time (the decade of its fastest growth and my service as counsel).

This was like being in an air traffic control tower and seeing everything from operations on the ground to various levels of soaring happening at any given time, lots of coming and going and worldwide operations — large and small. I got the 10,000+ hours that Malcolm Gladwell talks about in his book Outliers fast, furiously, and frequently.
It is SUPER rare to have that kind of experience or to be able to absorb and assemble the kind of approaches to successful board, operations, program, and partnership

This is a hurdle for so many individuals and organizations seeking to do more good, better.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“It’s good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.” — Ursula K. LeGuin

This has always been a favorite quote and is poignantly relevant in every aspect of life — from work, to family, to friendships to living all of life itself. There’s little more I can offer than the quote itself to explain its simple brilliance.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Adam Grant. I’d like to talk about social impact, simplicity, and scale — in that order.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

Social Impact Heroes: Why & How Scott Curran of Beyond Advisors Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.