Are we just good at something or do we have genuine core competencies?

During my time working with major international NGOs, it was not unusual to hear very senior managers state with great confidence that, ‘we have many core competencies’, or, ‘yes, that’s one of our core competencies’. As too often with NGOs, highly specific language was bandied around in a cavalier fashion so that ‘core competencies’ has come to mean anything the NGO is ‘good at’. This is deeply misleading and is, in my opinion, one of the reasons why many NGOs end up (often through donor assessments) realising that they are not quite as good as they thought they were in addressing their core activities. Why? Mainly because core competencies need to be defined very carefully indeed – and also need to be nurtured in the same way. As Hamel and Prahalad noted some years ago, for any skill, product, knowledge or approach to be defined as a genuine core competency, it needs to demonstrate/deliver three results at the same time – (i) provide potential access to a wide variety of markets/beneficiaries/opportunities, (ii) make a significant contribution to the perceived customer benefit of the end product, and, (iii) be difficult to imitate by other agencies. Stating ‘Coca Cola’s secret recipe’ is a good example from the business world, but NGOs struggle because too many of them have approaches which are easily replicated or do not, in fact, add as much value added to ‘beneficiaries’ as the NGO might like to believe. Should NGOs evolve in ways which genuinely develop core competencies, then this situation might very well change. Look at your favourite NGO – what do they do which could not be imitated by another civil society organisation?