US State Department looks at partnerships as ventures, launches initiative to share lessons

Thomas Debass, acting special representative for global partnerships at the State Department. Photo by: The DEMO Conference / CC BY-NC-ND

WASHINGTON — The United States Department of State has launched an accelerator for public-private partnerships that will build on lessons learned over more than a decade working in the sector.

Boldline Accelerator, is accepting applications through Nov. 29, and seeks to help organizations better understand and create PPPs, improve the partnership building ecosystem, and take partnerships to scale. The week-long program will be modeled after venture accelerators, because “PPPs are our startups,” Thomas Debass, acting special representative for global partnerships at the State Department, told Devex in a recent interview.

The past 15 years have seen “a great deal of evolution in what partnerships are,” Debass said. During that time, the State Department’s partnerships have had both “glories and tragedies” — experiences that have built an understanding of what goes into a successful collaboration, he said.

Boldline views partnerships as ventures and may exemplify future engagement at a time where there is uncertainty around the future of U.S. foreign aid budgets.

While Debass said he did not know how State Department reforms, he told Devex, “I feel confident that the reality that we’re facing if government resources are dwindling, if we want to be more efficient, there is a greater need to collaborate with others.”

The launch of Boldline is a statement that partnerships are a way forward, and a method of working that has limited costs and capitalizes on knowledge. Debass said he “thinks that the administration embraces” the approach.

So what lessons has the State Department learned about partnerships?

First, it is important for organizations to know their partners and find true alignment of interests and shared viewpoints on the problem they are trying to solve. “Just because you found someone willing to collaborate doesn’t mean that they are the right one,” Debass said.

Well-orchestrated partnerships have a clear plan, based on effectively identifying the resources and strengths of each partner. A good guide is to avoid starting with any assumptions about what is needed to solve a particular challenge. “It frees you up not to ask for the wrong resources,” Debass said.

Additionally, he urged organizations not to undervalue communication. This is one place where PPPs can learn from venture accelerator programs; they can better hone their “pitch” and communicate what they are doing. PPPs need to gain traction with the public through clear explanations of what they are working toward. The State Department is “treating PPPs as ventures not driven by money, but a collaboration to solve problems,” Debass said.

This lesson on communications is one that the State Department learned the hard way.  In 2012, its Global Partnerships office launched the Lions@frica initiative to help 100,000 African entrepreneurs launch and expand technology-based businesses by 2020. The initiative began with a launch event with the World Economic Forum, Microsoft, and Nokia. Thereafter, however, it was slow to progress, he said.

“We had drunk [from] our own kool aid so much, we thought everyone drank it,” Debass said. “The partnership should have been an awareness campaign, not a programming campaign.”

Lions@frica helped co-found Demo Africa, the biggest pitching platform on the continent, he said. But it could have done more faster if it had thought through the role of communications and the importance of gaining traction.

The State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development sit on a lot of knowledge, he said, adding that it’s time for them to step up as thought leaders and share this public good.

The U.S. government can also serve a broker to connect different partners working on the same issues and help further the conversation about partnerships of the future — one of the goal of Boldline, Debass said.

Read more Devex coverage on partnerships.

About the author

  • Adva Saldinger

    Adva Saldinger is an Associate Editor at Devex, where she covers the intersection of business and international development, as well as U.S. foreign aid policy. From partnerships to trade and social entrepreneurship to impact investing, Adva explores the role the private sector and private capital play in development. A journalist with more than 10 years of experience, she has worked at several newspapers in the U.S. and lived in both Ghana and South Africa.

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