Kind of a big deal

Open CoLab

Welcome to the March edition of the Open CoLab newsletter.

This month’s theme: kind of a big deal.

There’s a moment in the TV version of a negotiation when a suit-clad executive lays out the offer, looks across a conference table at another exec, and says: “Do we have a deal?”

Most deals don’t happen with such finality. They involve relationships built over time, give-and-take, follow-up clarifications. But the core concept is important: it’s a moment of agreement. A critical juncture that moves you from potential partnership to clear commitment. You seal the deal with a handshake. Going back now means breaking your word.

The news from the social change sector this month involved several deals—some made, some broken, some promised. Can they teach us something about how such a moment can move society forward (or not)?


A metaphor grows in a bulb. Photo by Singkham from Pexels

The big story: Green New Deal

The Green New Deal grabbed headlines in the United States last month, when Representative Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Markey introduced it as a resolution in both the House and Senate. Rather than a fully detailed deal, it remains more of a plan to create a Green New Deal (Vox explains what it includes and what it leaves out). That outline was enough to make it a lightening rod for both opposition and support.

But what interests me more is how we got here. Here are three good pieces explaining how this idea moved from the edges to center-stage in the past few months.

The Story Behind the Green New Deal’s Meteoric Rise

Sam Adler-Bell describes the Deal’s recent history in The New Republic, focusing on the Sunrise Movement’s strategic and tactical decisions. They drew on training from Momentum that rejects the traditional distinction between structured organizations (e.g. labor) vs. movements based on mass protest (e.g. Occupy, Movement for Black Lives). Sunrise is pursuing a hybrid model, creating dramatic moments for publicity to gain new supporters (think: Pelosi office sit-in; Feinstein talking to young activists), and more traditional organizing in key House districts.

The Climate Movement’s Decades-Long Path to the Green New Deal

Matthew Miles Goodrich takes a longer view on the Deal’s background in Dissent. He tells a history of the climate movement trying to rise above politics and avoid messy entanglements in partisanship. What it had to show for it was watered-down proposals that failed to pass. Recent progress stems from a willingness to polarize the issue—or rather, to acknowledge how polarized it’s become, and respond accordingly—and to politicize your engagement with elected officials, pushing them hard if needed.

The keys to the Sunrise Movement’s momentum? A bold idea, a visionary narrative, and organizing best practices

The Climate Advocacy Lab shares a further description of the Deal’s political strengths. To list a few: it’s big and bold; it acknowledges the central role of the government in solving the climate crisis; it prioritizes both jobs and justice; and it has broad potential support (though little familiarity yet). Strategically, Sunrise grounded its approach in social movement research, with disruptive tactics leveraged to drive a strong narrative.

Let’s make a deal! Foundation Center + GuideStar = Candid

Early in February, the Foundation Center and GuideStar announced they were merging into a new entity called Candid. Together, they’ll be a powerhouse of data and analysis on the U.S. nonprofit sector. They could unlock more comprehensive search results on nonprofits, enable a common grant application and reporting frameworks, and better link results data to funding data.

The two pieces below both describe the process behind the merger, which started with staff conversations in 2012 and found support from the Lodestar Foundation and others.

This merger is a big deal for anyone who cares about nonprofit capacity building and/or data. Oddly, I’ve seen few critiques of the merger, aside from passing mentions about Candid's combined size and monopoly status. That could be a reaction to the rarity of nonprofit mergers: when you spot an endangered red panda, you don’t complain that it was less cute than you’d expected. But the coverage overall recalls the boosterism of telecom mergers: “we’ll be able to provide better services at lower prices, don’t worry about market power.” While I trust the intentions behind the Candid merger, I hope the combined board and leadership ensure they’re fostering the nonprofit information ecosystem, rather than dominating it.

Fun fact: a "palantir" is a crystal ball that can see anywhere in the world and a totally not creepy name for a software company. (Photo: Plasma globe. CC0 via Pexels.)

Sounds like a bad deal: WFP and Palantir.

IRIN broke the news on the UN World Food Programme’s new partnership with infamous software company Palantir. If Palantir’s close ties to intelligence and immigration enforcement don’t already give you pause, this open letter from the Responsible Data community clarifies the risks: de-anonymization of data, algorithmic bias, ownership questions, future costs of software lock-in, undermining humanitarian principles, and more.

Unlike the Candid merger, I’ve found no one supporting this deal. Leiden University’s Centre for Innovation took a marginally generous view, but still echoed the open letter’s call for transparency and scrutiny of the arrangement.

The deal raises evergreen ethical and practical questions for those working for social good: how can we partner with actors who don’t put social good at the center of their work? When the technology and expertise of the private sector can further our missions, how do we get a good deal—and when should we walk away?

No deal: Amazon and NYC.

The biggest deal-that-didn’t-happen in recent weeks was between Amazon and New York City. For those who haven’t been following as closely as the locals, Amazon pulled out of an agreement that promised 25,000 jobs in Queens in exchange for $3 billion in tax breaks and other incentives. When first announced last November, the deal faced immediate political backlash from community groups concerned over the negative economic impacts of bringing Amazon to Queens, the size of the tax breaks, and the closed-door process.

Two pieces on the politics of Amazon's failure stood out:

NYT paints a clear picture of the opposition Amazon faced from New York’s halls of power, while The Nation emphasizes the grassroots mobilizations. When they pulled out, Amazon executives still expected the deal to go through, but knew they’d face years of opposition in the implementation.

What struck me was how Amazon misunderstood the political climate they were stepping into when they first chose New York. The company has more than enough resources for the political economy analyses or power mappings that inform social change campaigns, but perhaps it was too blinded by its own power and sense of infallibility. (Something that’s also often true of big foundations or global aid donors working in unfamiliar contexts.)

Amazon’s promoters in New York are characterizing the opposition as a vocal minority drowning out a silent majority of supporters. (In fact, that’s the basis of their requests for Amazon to un-cancel the deal.) If that were a fair characterization, it still wouldn’t change the politics: facing a vocal minority is very difficult for a company, even one as powerful as Amazon. But they also faced the risk that the minority were the ones who had considered the deal’s consequences, and that many silent supporters would join the opposition over time. In that case, pulling out now was their least bad outcome, as uncomfortable as it might be.

Meanwhile, Matt Stoller of Open Markets Institute argues for making things even more uncomfortable for Amazon:

Stoller tries to build on the backlash by calling for investigations into Amazon’s abuse of monopoly power. The political momentum is moving against the company, and a high-profile investigation from a state attorney general could be a clarion call for the country’s slothlike antitrust enforcement.

Interlude: Who are the real dealmakers?

Business leaders like to pretend they have superhuman dealmaking skills. Popular culture spreads that myth so well—through films and television and enough management books to fill an airport—that it was probably a factor in getting a reality show host elected president.

Is there any truth to it? It depends on how you define a "deal". The private sector does more financial transactions, from supply agreements to big acquisitions to high-frequency trading. With all the practice, you'd expect them to excel at such deals.

But as complicated as those deals may be, they're simple compared to social change. The (original) New Deal was a massive investment in the American economy, flawed in how it excluded communities of color, but still such a driver of change that it holds political resonance seven decades later. The power-sharing arrangements that bring peace after war? Navigating technology's influence on the social contract? Grant agreements supporting work on hard-to-measure outcomes? All are more complex than many private sector transactions.

Maybe the relatively simple arena of business allows executives to build dealmaking skills they can apply to other problems, much like a child plays tee-ball to build coordination for baseball. Just as often, they seem bewildered by the chaos of social and public sector problems. They spent years hitting a stationary ball, only to step out of the locker room and realize the game is rugby, being played on a muddy field.


  • All-cash deal: “Info Gaps Drive Mistrust in Cash Transfer Programs - As part of a series on failures in foreign aid, Anthony Langat describes the confusion facing families who receive cash transfers through a safety net program in Kenya. Takeaway: there are still a lot of challenges to using cash aid, despite (or maybe because of?) its rapid spread.

  • Dealt a bad hand: “Shifting the Powerplay in Co-design - Because design/innovation practices often tend ignore power, designer Lauren Weinstein built a card game to help groups explore how power and privilege work. Players get a shuffle of power cards (e.g. money, wellness, inherited privilege), which they can then use in situations presented by the game. It looks like a light way to explore power and privilege, without the personal disclosures required of a "privilege walk".

  • Dealt a shock: “We didn’t see this coming - Bill and Melinda Gates frame their most recent annual letter around nine things that have surprised them: from Africa’s young population to the impact of urbanization on climate change, and from digital learning to 21st century toilets. However, the framing is just a click-baity way of saying: “here are things we think are important.” Given their influence, it's helpful to know what's on their minds. But nothing here is surprising, which is why Martin Levine calls the vision myopic: the letter makes no mention of major issues like wealth inequality, racism, corruption, or authoritarianism.

It's no trick to make a lot of money... if what you want to do is make a lot of money.

— Mr. Bernstein, Citizen Kane

Followups and feedback

Newsletter reader Nicole Anand read last month’s issue on emergence and pointed out that the concept plays an important role in design practice. See, for example, Ton Otto on the different relationships that ethnography and design have toward time (warning: it’s heavy on the philosophical jargon—temporality and ontology and such). Nicole also suggested two books: Design Anthropological Futures and Emerging Practices: Design in Complexity (which I haven’t read, but pass along her second-hand endorsement).

Many thanks to Nicole for pointing us toward these resources. Thanks also to Katherine Wikrent for suggesting I include a summary section (done!) and to everyone else who gave feedback. Keep letting me know what you think! Just hit reply—it's that easy.

And lastly: if you found something in this newsletter interesting, why keep it to yourself? A friend who shares is a friend who cares!

- Dave