New connectivity in the global south is just one of the trends reshaping the landscape for international NGOs, write James Crowley and Morgana Ryan in their new book, 'Building a Better International NGO." Photo: Adam Cohn/Flickr, (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The idea of carrying out, from time to time, some considered reflection and examination of one’s role, and hence what one needs to be really good at, seems to be a sensible step for any organization that wants to stay relevant.

However, for large international development and relief agencies, in the midst of a dramatically changing environment, we believe that the need for some radical reflection is well overdue.

Why a rethink? Why now?

Here are six fundamental factors that are particularly important in prompting some rethinking at this time.

1.  Local capacity building

There has, for some time, been an ongoing shift in development thinking. A good example of this is the recognition of the need to work more collaboratively, often in a supporting role, with a range of other stakeholders such as local government institutions, local community-based organizations, or local civil society organizations.

Another related aspect of this is the shift in emphasis, with a focus less on the delivery of basic services to poor communities to more on a much more supportive role, helping local communities build their own capacity and become more aware of their basic legal rights, as well as the possibilities for their own social and economic progress.

2.  Demand for evidence

There is an ever-increasing clamor for stronger evidence of sustainable impact from the programs supported and implemented by INGOs. Hence, as INGOs learn from more advanced monitoring and evaluation systems and gain a deeper understanding of the impact of different types of and approaches to program design and implementation, it is inevitable that they should review the scope of activities and programs they engage in, drawing back from more questionable areas and concentrating on areas where there is clearer evidence of lasting impact.

3.  Private sector involvement  

The role and involvement of other major actors affecting development has changed significantly over the past decade and is continuing to change. For example, the private sector is increasingly regarded as essential in driving sustainable economic development and as important to achieving sustainable poverty alleviation.

The private sector is becoming much more active from a number of angles. Many companies have come to appreciate that developing countries are strategically important to their future business success, be it in accessing new customers and markets, sourcing raw materials, or tapping into new investment opportunities.

4.  New players on the scene

There is a range of new organizations, either not-for-profits, for-profits, or hybrids, that are providing the types of services that INGOs saw as their sole territory in the past. Examples include companies such as Chemonics International, Academi (formerly Blackwater), The Louis Berger Group, Kiva, and Development Alternatives, as well as in some more well-known names such as PwC and BearingPoint.

5. Emerging development issues

There is a growing need for INGOs to contribute to some new areas in need of attention, such as issues relating to the impact of climate change in developing countries. Another example is the area of regional and international advocacy in an interconnected world. There is an increasing opportunity, in fact obligation, for some INGOs to participate much more seriously as contributors in relation to international policy, as well as in the implementation of international policy at national and international levels.

6. Technological progress

Last, and by no means least, in a world of ever-increasing connectivity facilitated by waves of new technological possibilities, particularly information technology, the context for the work of large INGOs is changing significantly. In the old world, the INGO often acted as an intermediary between the richer North and the less fortunate South. With new and emerging technology possibilities, INGOs need to ensure that they are a value-adding facilitator. Moreover, it is critical that large established INGOs do not invest large sums to automate a model of operation for a role and associated set of competencies that may rapidly become outdated.

Hence, we believe the time is right for INGOs to revisit their role and contributions and clarify the core competencies that they nurture and build if they wish to maximize their contribution in a changing and more interconnected environment. This is particularly relevant for INGOs when they undertake strategic planning reviews and should be a standard part of any such exercise.

A core competencies approach

As almost every INGO increases its efforts to become better organized, more efficient, more coordinated internally, and more integrated externally, we need to address the $1 million question: What are large INGOs really good at? What are their core competencies today, and what do they need to be in the future? That’s assuming that large INGOs have a useful role to play in the future.

Based on our experience at Accenture Development Partnerships, through which we have consulted with some of the world’s largest international NGOs, we wrote this book for senior executives, CEOs, chairs, and active board members of large international NGOs who are concerned about one of the biggest central questions facing large INGOs today: In a world of dramatically changing context, what is the role of INGOs in the next decade?

In our book we refer back to the original thinking of C. K. Prahalad and Gary Hamel, published in the classic Harvard Business Review article “The Core Competence of the Corporation.” The intention is to apply the same approach to INGOs and see what lessons and conclusions can be drawn.

We identify a broad menu of core “generic” competencies for large INGOs. We explore how well NGOs line up today against these generic competence areas and also try to predict how their importance or relevance might change in the future.

The idea of core competencies, properly and deliberately thought through, can be a very productive way to help large INGOs achieve a more precise strategic focus. It can help INGOs clarify which capability investments are most important for the future and help spawn new innovative programs and products that are based on their core competence. It can also enable others to see more clearly where and when to partner with them and ultimately provide them with a credible source of comparative advantage into the future.

We believe that the management debate around strategic focus, which is often articulated in terms of choices around geography or sectors, might more productively be conducted around core competencies.

Excerpted and adapted from Building a Better International NGO: Greater than the Sum of the Parts? Copyright © 2013 by Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. Used with permission of the publisher, Kumarian Press, a division of Lynne Rienner Publishers, Inc. 

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About the author

  • James Crowley & Morgana Ryan

    James Crowley has helped strengthen over a dozen of largest global NGOs over past 8 years as an independent advisor; previously he led Accenture's strategy practice in the UK and Ireland. Morgana Ryan leads Accenture Development Partnerships' Organizational Strengthening practice and uses her 16+ years of global work experience in business and development to look for scalable and sustainable development outcomes. Together they authored the new book, "Building a Better International NGO: Greater than the Sum of the Parts?"