Interview: Former Clinton lawyer on what Trump’s legacy means for social impact

Scott Curran says corporates and investors will no longer be able to be apolitical

As President Joe Biden celebrates his inauguration as the 46th US President this week, eyes are also turning to what President Trump’s next move will be. It’s likely to be highly unusual. His decision yesterday to skip Biden’s inauguration breaks with 150 years of tradition.

Scott Curran, CEO and Founder of social impact consultancy Beyond Advisers, says depending on who you ask, Trump’s next move could be as celebrated or vilified as what President Bill Clinton did when he left office in the early 2000s

Curran became a staff member during the early years of the Clinton Foundation. It broke the mould of what former US Presidents did in their post-presidency, such as writing books or one-off initiatives. “Bill Clinton was not done with public service,” Curran explains.” He was the youngest former President in American history and he had big ideas for how he could continue service.”

Curran, who started with the Clinton Foundation after graduating from the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service, jokes he was quickly faced with the opportunity to set up a legal department from scratch. It grew to a 16-person team after a decade with Curran acting as legal counsel. 

During this time, the Clinton Foundation faced “a level five hurricane of scrutiny and criticism that rivals that of Trump” and included FBI and Justice Department investigations on allegations of corruption and “donations for access”. The media also dogged the organisation. 

From Curran’s point of view, he spent a decade helping the organization in its efforts including building game-changing work in global health, climate change, early childhood education, childhood obesity and international development, among other initiatives the Foundation undertook. 

“Tackling these issues in real specific and measurable ways every day is extraordinarily exciting. Helping in an emerging situation like the tsunami in Southeast Asia or the earthquake in Haiti, which required all hands on deck when the former President said ‘Ok we’re going to help, let’s figure it out’. That’s 72-hours of your life where you don’t get to sleep.”

Curran has taken this experience to his now 5-year-old firm Beyond Advisers where he advises on social impact with multinationals and global foundations. He says conversations he has had with clients since the US Capitol riots have brought into sharp relief the fact that everybody has a social impact, especially corporations. 

The fall-out from the violence in Washington D.C. has seen waves of companies, such as Cisco and Goldman Sachs, publicly stopping political donations. Deutsche Bank ended business with Donald Trump. New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, who advises the city’s pension funds, has called on eight companies to suspend donations to Republican “election objectors”.  

Corporate lobbying has been on the radar of responsible investors for years, especially on the issue of climate change. The events at Capitol Hill are likely to bolster investor action. 

“It has illuminated with clarity the impact that corporations have as actors in our society,” says Curran. 

He says the trajectory was already in motion with the Business Roundtable’s announcement on moving from “shareholder primacy” to “stakeholder primacy”.

“We’ve been seeing it for a long time, which is the increasing awareness of corporate actors as global citizens. That they matter. Their voice matters.” 

“And so what we’ve seen here in the US just in the past weeks alone, in the narrower context of what has been described as an insurrection on the US Capitol for the first time in our history, is that global brands have come out and stated their opposition.”

“Corporations are not only staking a claim on where they stand on democracy, they’re pulling funding from politicians who they believe are on the wrong side of the current situation. There’s no way any corporate actor, at least here in the US, can now suggest they can be apolitical. Not when they are writing checks for politicians who make policy that impacts the people and creates the reality in which we all live in. There’s simply no denying it.”

Since the US Capitol riots he has also seen more interest from companies wanting to strengthen their position as corporate citizens. “I would say that applies equally to investors today and shareholders today who are looking to deploy their standing, their purchasing power or their investment dollar for greater and more positive social impact.”

Curran adds that talent retention is also a big driver for companies: social media platforms’ recent action to remove President Donald Trump was spurred on by concerned staff. He has clients who have left well-known social media organisations and created new organisations with their wealth. They predict a reckoning for the industry which was already under investor pressure on issues such as privacy, hate speech and child protection. 

“‘What is our obligation as a corporate actor?’ That's usually the first question they are working through. They're not ignorant to the impact that it has on perception of favoritism one way or the other, or picking sides. But at the end of the day, if their platform is being misused and they have terms of service that make that clear, they have an obligation without regard to preference or personal politics.”

“There's an evolution happening and an ongoing reckoning that will almost always be imperfect and that will require hard choices to be made,” he adds. “But make no mistake, the market, consumers, and investor capital are paying attention to those choices.”  

He says only time will tell what the already unprecedented post-presidency of Donald Trump will look like, and how history will interpret his actions going forward. For now, America and the world must wait and see what further choices the 45th President will make and the repercussions they might have.