What is an NGO (nongovernmental organization)?
NGO is an acronym for nongovernmental organization, which refers to any organization that is not created, operated, or unduly influenced by government or business. NGOs are created to serve some social good, the welfare of society.
NGOs are a key part of civil society, the so-called third sector:
- Civil society
Each NGO tends to have a focus or mission of either:
- Providing services that help to fill gaps in services provided by government and business.
This informal paper is designed to define and give a brief overview and introduction to NGOs. It is not intended to be an all-encompassing handbook or guide for creating a new NGO. The Wikipedia article contains a fair amount of additional detail.
Some other key facets of NGOs:
- NGOs are usually nonprofit organizations, unless they are too informally organized to have a formal legal charter.
- Technically, all organizations outside of government and business are NGOs, but the usual practice is to refer only to non-traditional organizations as NGOs, excluding religious institutions, labor unions, professional associations, philanthropic foundations, political parties, youth organizations, clubs, educational institutions, etc.
- Advocacy of an NGO is typically for change of some sort, but they can also advocate for maintaining the status quo when important common social assets or public policies are perceived to be under threat.
- Activists and social advocates are the primary moving and motivating force behind NGOs.
- NGOs are the heart and soul of any large-scale grassroots activism.
- NGOs can be international in scope, but may be strictly national, regional, or local as well.
- NGOs are a global phenomenon, not limited to the U.S.
- NGOs can range in size from very small local groups to larger national groups and very large international groups.
- NGOs may be formally organized under nonprofit charters or may be informal organizations or unorganized groups, especially in other countries.
- Staffing for NGOs can vary from purely voluntary to completely paid professionals, or any combination between those extremes.
- Funding for NGOs is generally from private donors, but may be from philanthropies or even government grants as well.
Each NGO has its own mission or purpose, such as:
- Governance reform
- Economic opportunity — when the entire national, regional, local economy, or opportunity for an entire segment of society is lacking or struggling
- Any form of injustice or inequitable treatment
- Services, especially for marginalized social groups
- Civic engagement — to fill gaps when government and business are not adequately engaging with citizens
Advocacy NGOs most commonly campaign for:
- Justice, fighting any form of injustice or inequitable treatment
- Public policy
- Governmental reform
- Human rights of oppressed individuals and groups
Their first task is to raise awareness, but their main objective is to effect change through the grassroots pressure they bring to bear on government officials and business executives, as well as persuading their fellow citizens of their cause.
Although political parties may advocate for the same things, NGOs are commonly formed when established, traditional political parties are perceived as failing to adequately advocate either in the areas of interest or with the intensity of the founders and members of the NGOs.
Areas of advocacy include:
- Social justice
- Economic justice
- Racial justice
- Environmental justice
- Human rights
- Gender rights
- Empowering women and girls, especially education, economic opportunity, and participation in government
- Marginalized social groups
- Worker treatment and rights
- Immigrant treatment and rights
- Rule of law
- Governance reform
- Fair and equitable legal justice system
- Public policy
- Educating people in life skills, such as healthy living practices, family planning, and participation in governance
- Development aid — facilitating infrastructure projects
- Sustainable development — ensuring that development respects the needs of society and the environment
Activists of all stripes are the primary founders and workers of most NGOs.
NGOs epitomize grassroots activism and advocacy, in opposition to or complementing established and recognized authorities, NGOs are founded by individuals and groups who don’t have nominal official power in society in order to pursue social objectives that normally would have required official positions of power.
The most common theme for NGOs is advocating for change, to move society forward to a more progressive, inclusive, and equitable social structure.
Maintaining the status quo
Despite the prominence of advocating for change, there are also numerous reasons for NGOs to advocate for the exact opposite, to maintain the status quo, such as when important common social assets or public policies are under threat, such as:
- Environmental conservation
- Environmental protection
- Historic preservation
- Preserving neighborhoods
- Preserving public open space
- Anti-discrimination laws
- Food regulation and safety
- Safety regulation
- Education requirements and subsidies
- Housing subsidies
- Energy regulation
- Health care requirements, subsidies, and regulations
- Accessibility for the disabled
- Sustainable development
Granted, in many of these areas additional change may also be desired, but fighting efforts to roll back socially-valuable policies is a key role of NGOs.
Government and business provide a wealth of services, but not all needed services are provided by them or affordable to everyone. NGOs help to fill both of those gaps, in areas such as:
- Poverty alleviation
- Health care and related services
- Family planning
- Legal aid
- Disaster aid
- Recreational and athletic opportunities
- Environmental conservation and protection
Most NGOs tend to have a strictly advocacy or service orientation, but some are hybrids.
For example, Amnesty International, simultaneously advocates for human rights and leads actions to gain freedom for individuals and groups who are oppressed around the world.
The Committee to Protect Journalists is another example of a hybrid NGO, combining advocacy with action.
That said, there is a gray area between advocacy, action, and service — some degree of action is really an extension of advocacy rather than being a service per se.
NGOs are by definition nonprofit organizations, although not necessarily organized officially in a legal sense.
Technically all nonprofit organizations would be classified as NGOs, but from a more idealistic perspective, an organization needs to have a strictly social purpose for society as an integrated whole rather than a merely personal, business, recreational, partisan political, or religious motive in order to warrant being categorized as an NGO. Otherwise, they should more appropriately be considered as merely an adjunct to the entity whose interests they are pursuing.
Technically, a group is not a true organization per se unless it has some legally recognized organizational status. In the case of NGOs, they would nominally be nonprofit organizations such as those granted tax-exempt status by the U.S. IRS under section 501(c).
An informal group would not normally be considered an organization per se, but for the purposes of discussions of civil society, an informal group which acts in a coordinated manner with shared objectives, values, principles, and organized operations is effectively an organization even if not legally recognized as such.
Governmental entities working with NGOs may have more strict requirements for NGOs, such as the UN requiring that consultative status will only be granted to NGOs which have an established headquarters, constitution, and executive officer. Far from informal.
Other government entities such as the National Endowment for Democracy are less strict, especially for groups working in challenging countries, but still require at least some semblance of organizational structure, such as a board, even if not formally organized from a legal perspective.
A group needs to have some semblance of formal organization to be safely considered an NGO, such as at least some minimal sense of coherent guiding principles, values, objectives, and organized operations.
For example, Black Lives Matter considers itself a chapter-based national organization although it is not formally organized in a legal sense.
Can a movement be considered an NGO? Possibly… it depends, to the degree that there is some sense of organization.
For example, Black Lives Matter is a movement with some minimal sense of organization.
Business front groups
Businesses will sometimes create NGOs which appear to be independent and may be funded by multiple sources but are in reality simply front groups for the business. These nominal NGOs promote and advocate for the economic interests of the business, rather than for society as an integrated whole. They should more appropriately be considered as merely an adjunct to the business whose interests they are pursuing.
Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a front for the Koch brothers is a prime example.
Technically, such groups are NGOs, but this is a gray area. Responsible individuals and groups can reasonably argue that business front groups should not be considered or treated as NGOs, but equally responsible individuals or groups may reasonably disagree.
Political advocacy groups
Groups of likeminded individuals may create political advocacy NGOs to promote particular political agendas while keeping a distance from the individuals or even their identities.
They may advertise and lobby in favor of their preferred political agenda but refrain from making political campaign contributions.
These would be distinct from political parties and political action committees (PACs) to the extent that they do not make campaign contributions.
Political advocacy groups are another gray area where technically they are NGOs, but from a more idealistic perspective they should more appropriately be considered as merely an adjunct to the entity whose interests they are pursuing.
Muddying the water even further, business front groups can overlap with political groups, such as Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a front for the Koch brothers, advocating for both their economic and political interests.
According to the Wikipedia, the term non-governmental organization originated with the charter of the United Nations in 1945. NGOs existed in various forms before then, well back into the nineteenth century, but the UN seems to have formalized the use of the term non-governmental organization.
The acronym NGO appears to have come into use only in the mid-1990’s, at least according to my online search of The New York Times.
Some well-known large NGOs
Most of the long-established large NGOs are of the service-oriented variety. Advocacy-oriented NGOs tend to be smaller and local. A number of NGOs have national, regional, and local chapters as well as being organized at the international level.
Here are some representative larger and more well-known NGOs, listed in the order they were founded:
- YMCA — founded 1844
- Salvation Army — founded 1865
- International Committee of the Red Cross — founded 1863
- National Rifle Association of America (NRA) — founded 1871
- Legal Aid Society — founded 1876
- American Red Cross — founded 1881
- Rotary Clubs, Rotary International — founded 1905
- National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) — founded 1909
- Anti-Defamation League (ADL) — founded 1913
- Planned Parenthood — founded 1916
- American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) — founded 1920
- League of Women Voters — founded 1920
- Plan International — founded 1937
- Oxfam — founded 1942
- The Nature Conservancy — founded 1951
- Amnesty International — founded 1961
- American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) — founded 1963
- National Organization for Women (NOW) — founded 1966
- Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) — founded 1971
- Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF, Doctors Without Borders) — founded 1971
- Habitat for Humanity — founded 1976
- Human Rights Watch (HRW) — founded 1978
- Human Rights Campaign (HRC) — founded 1980
- Committee to Protect Journalists — founded 1981
- Code Pink: Women for Peace — founded 2002
- Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) — founded 2006
Civil society organizations (CSOs)
As previously mentioned, NGOs are a key part of civil society. This earns them the categorization of being civil society organizations (CSOs.)
Traditional organizations may be active in civil society as well, earning them the companion categorization of civil society actors. All CSOs are civil society actors, but not all civil society actors are CSOs or NGOs.
The UN considers the concept of CSO to encompass not only NGOs, but institutions, foundations, and associations as well.
As mentioned, traditional organizations are not usually referred to as NGOs per se, such as:
- Labor unions
- Philanthropic foundations, although they tend to give grants to NGOs
- Think tanks
- Professional organizations
- Trade associations
- Industry groups
- Standard setting organizations
- Political parties
- Youth organizations
- Sports leagues, associations, and teams
- Members-only service organizations
- Private schools, colleges, and universities (public education is part of government)
As an example, the United States Chamber of Commerce (USCC) is an independent organization that may superficially look like an NGO, but is very closely aligned and associated with the business sector. It operates more like a trade association rather than for the general welfare of society.
Other non-NGO organizations and groups
Other organizations not considered NGOs include:
- Political action committees (PACs)
- Government sponsored organizations regardless of how independent they may nominally be
- Intergovernmental organizations or treaty organizations and alliances
- Revolutionary groups
- Rebel groups, freedom fighters
- Terrorist groups
- Gangs and criminal organizations
- Informal and ad hoc activist and protest groups
Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs)
Governments may agree to cooperate through some agreement or treaty, such as
- United Nations
- IMF and World Bank
- Organization of American States
- Regional security agreements, arrangements, alliances, coalitions, or organizations
- Regional development banks
Whether the European Union (EU) should be considered an intergovernmental organization is unclear, but in many ways it does act as such.
The tight governmental link precludes intergovernmental organizations from being considered NGOs.
That said, intergovernmental organizations frequently have a close relationship with NGOs as partners when their missions and objectives are closely aligned.
As noted earlier, NGOs are fully independent of government and business (even if they do get some grant funding), while some organizations have some organizational independence but are otherwise fully chartered, sponsored, and controlled by government, such as:
- National Endowment for Democracy (NED)
- International Republican Institute (IRI)
- National Democratic Institute (NDI)
- Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC)
- Solidarity Center — run by AFL-CIO, but primarily funded by USG through NED
- Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE) — an affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, but primarily funded by USG through NED
- United States Agency for International Development (USAID)
Note: USG is Washington, DC jargon for U.S. government.
These organizations may function similar to NGOs in various ways, but are not strictly NGOs nor normally considered NGOs. They are indeed arms of the sponsoring government.
That said, it is not uncommon for these government-sponsored organizations to give grants to true NGOs when their interests and objectives are in reasonably close alignment.
GONGO — Government-Organized NGO
Shady governments will on occasion setup organizations that look and act like true NGOs but are in fact completely created and operated by the government. These are called government-organized NGOs or GONGOs. The intent is that to the average citizen GONGOs will appear to be NGOs, deluding citizens into believing that these mock NGOs represent the interests of the citizens when they do not.
Whether government-sponsored organizations should be treated as GONGOs is a debatable gray area. They do indeed act as NGOs to a fair extent and have at least some distance from official government agencies, but they are still upfront to at least some degree and do not seek to completely hide their association with the government in the extreme manner that GONGOs do.
Although independent of government and business, NGOs can commonly be partially funded through grants from governmental organizations, including intergovernmental organizations and government-sponsored organizations when the mission of the NGO is in alignment with some government mission.
Democracy promotion and democratization
The U.S. government and EU are very active at promoting democracy around the world, especially in countries with lingering authoritarian governments, fledgling democracies, and democracies in transition. NGOs are key partners if not the leading edge in this effort. A fair amount of their funding flows from the U.S. and EU governments.
Democracy promotion or democratization is facilitated by NGOs focused on governance reform, anti-corruption, and human rights.
NGOs may participate in or even sponsor protest activities, such as marches, rallies, publicity actions, sit-ins, meetings, leaflets and flyers, or letter-writing campaigns, but protest per se is not exclusively or necessarily an NGO activity.
On the other hand, many governments, especially in countries suffering from a democracy deficit, will consider any and all NGO activities, especially foreign-funded NGOs as inherently a matter of protest.
Restricting foreign funding of democracy promotion NGOs
Authoritarian governments have caught on in recent years and really cracked down on NGOs focused on democracy promotion that receive foreign funding, considering them foreign agents.
At a minimum, foreign-funded NGOs are being required to register with the local government and disclose their funding, and at the extreme they are being shut down, or at least harassed and restricted to the point where they either voluntarily shut down or cease accepting foreign funding.
NGOs frequently form coalitions, where any number of NGOs who share some common interest act as a group, with the group being treated as one larger NGO. This can be done to streamline operations, facilitate funding, and to facilitate interaction with government and intergovernmental organizations who seek to partners with these NGOs.
Volunteers, staff, and internships
Smaller NGOs may get by strictly with volunteer staff, but larger NGOs will tend to have a full complement of paid professional staff supplemented by volunteers as well.
Volunteers may work either within the NGO or in conjunction or in sympathy with it. Informal grassroots efforts are common, with NGOs providing direction, guidance, and support.
Paid and unpaid internships are common.
The hyphenated form non-governmental organization is fairly common, but the unhyphenated form nongovernmental organization is more common and the preferred form, except that some organizations may prefer the former.
In Europe and the UK the hyphenated form combined with the s spelling of organization — non-governmental organisation — is more common.
As noted earlier, NGOs are a key part of civil society, the third sector of society.
Civil society is defined and summarized more thoroughly in a companion informal paper, What is Civil Society? This informal paper serves as a foundation for that paper.