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:

  • Government
  • Business
  • Civil society

Each NGO tends to have a focus or mission of either:

  • Advocacy.
  • 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.

Purpose

  • Advocacy
  • Governance reform
  • Anti-corruption
  • 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

  • Change
  • Justice, fighting any form of injustice or inequitable treatment
  • Opportunity
  • Public policy
  • Governmental reform
  • Anti-corruption
  • 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

Grassroots

Change

Maintaining the status quo

  • 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.

Services

  • Poverty alleviation
  • Health care and related services
  • Family planning
  • Education
  • Housing
  • Legal aid
  • Disaster aid
  • Recreational and athletic opportunities
  • Environmental conservation and protection

Hybrid NGOs

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.

Nonprofit organization

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.

Organization

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.

Informal NGOs

For example, Black Lives Matter considers itself a chapter-based national organization although it is not formally organized in a legal sense.

Movements

For example, Black Lives Matter is a movement with some minimal sense of organization.

Business front groups

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

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.

Origin

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

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)

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.

Traditional organizations

  • Religions
  • 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
  • Clubs
  • 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

  • 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)

  • United Nations
  • WTO
  • IMF and World Bank
  • WHO
  • Organization of American States
  • NATO
  • NAFTA
  • 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.

Government-sponsored organizations

  • 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

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.

Government grants

Democracy promotion and democratization

Democracy promotion or democratization is facilitated by NGOs focused on governance reform, anti-corruption, and human rights.

Protest

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

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.

NGO coalitions

Volunteers, staff, and internships

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.

Alternative spelling

In Europe and the UK the hyphenated form combined with the s spelling of organization — non-governmental organisation — is more common.

Civil 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.

Freelance Consultant