Starting an NGO

Do you have a passion for helping others? A vision for changing the world in a positive way, or are focused on volunteerism for the greater good? Then working for or starting a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) may be worth looking into. Consider these words of inspiration from Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President of the United States:

“You are not here merely to make a living. You are here in order to enable the world to live more amply, with greater vision, with a finer spirit of hope and achievement. You are here to enrich the world, and you impoverish yourself if you forget the errand.”

The NGO universe is a crowded place, fraught with challenges that at times may cloud your perception of future rewards. Exactly how crowded? There are millions of NGOs internationally, from one to two person organizations in your home town to those with a multi-national presence and thousands of staff and volunteers. India, alone, has an estimated 3.3 million NGOs.

Key Ingredients of Starting an NGO

To be successful at working for, starting, or running an NGO, you need to expertly blend together the key ingredients that will make or break your efforts – everything from promotion and funding to volunteers versus paid staff and everything in between. But one ingredient can change the flavor of the final product: Programs and projects. Without an understanding of the needs of your target audience, and tailoring your programs accordingly, you are doomed to failure.

Important Steps to Starting Your NGO

  • Establish a Purpose/Vision/Goals. This is the most basic step you can take when founding an NGO, as it allows you to determine the purpose of the organization. At this point, it is recommended that you simply put pen to paper and start writing a statement that describes what the NGO does, what its values are, and who its target audience is.
  • Set Up Your Board of Directors. Though an NGO is a charitable organization, to be successful it needs to be run as a businesses, with clearly defined goals and financial parameters. For this, you need to establish a board of directors, recruiting seasoned professionals – even for an initial short term – with expertise in management, legal issues, fundraising, human resources, and technology.
  • Retain Legal Expertise. At least initially, you will be faced with many tasks best undertaken by a lawyer, such as registering the NGO, filing articles of incorporation, filing reports, dealing with tax issues, and securing licenses.
  • Choose a Name. Before deciding on a name for your NGO, make sure you research other similar organizations to see what names they have chosen to best describe the work they do. Even if your favorite name is already gone, you will generate ideas from the experience and soon find the perfect name is waiting in the shadows.
  • Draft Articles of Incorporation. Another task for your chief legal counsel, creating the articles of incorporation provides a legal description of the organization and grants power to the board. The articles specify the name of the NGO, its purpose and mission, statement declaring its non-profit status, where it is located, the number of board members and their names, extent of personal liability, whether the NGO has capital stock (in most cases, no), and how long the NGO is expected to function (often simple described as “everlasting”).
  • Draft Bylaws. These simply state the responsibility of the NGO itself, including information such as purpose or mission, registered office of the organization, members, qualifications, and lengths of membership, the size of the board of directors and its responsibilities, how board meetings will be run, committee structure, and officer duties.
  • Register Your NGO. In most cases, an NGO is registered in its local country or seat of government. Often, government offices have staffs who handle NGO registrations, and this is the best place to start to learn about the registration process.
  • Hold Your First Board of Director’s Meeting. What happens at the kick off meeting for the board? The board will usually adopt the bylaws, establish officers, committees, and discuss early projects the NGO may want to focus on.
  • Find an Accounting System. From the earliest days of running an NGO, you must establish a transparent accounting system that records where funding comes from, and how it is used. In this case, transparent means your accounting records are open for public scrutiny, and you have nothing to hide.

Fundraising is a Key Objective

To be successful, your NGO must establish a fundraising plan once its programs have been decided upon. Where to seek funding? From other charitable groups, corporations and businesses, individuals, religious groups, and governments. It is important to point out that many NGOs receive government funding, but retain their status by not having government representatives on staff.

Other Steps to Consider
There are other sometimes overlooked steps to consider for your NGO, especially in this inter-connected, media savvy world where information knows no boundaries and is disseminated almost instantly:

  • Start a Website. If you build it, they will come, so find a talented web developer and user interface designer who will perhaps donate their time to getting your first website up and running.
  • Develop a Marketing Plan.
  • Build Media Contacts.

Legal or Charitable Status

Though it has no internationally recognized legal definition, an NGO generally refers to an organization that operates independently from any government as a charity. In the United States, any group seeking non-profit, tax exempt (503(c)) status must register with their local government as well as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Information on establishing your 503(c) organization is available in a number of locations, including your local library, government offices, and different online resources. The IRS website includes information such as frequently asked questions for charitable, tax exempt organizations, plus the necessary forms to get your NGO registered in a timely fashion. Another good resource for a U.S based group is the U.S. Small Business Administration.

What is an NGO?

What is a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO)? Though it has no internationally recognized legal definition, an NGO generally refers to an organization that operates independently from any government – though it may receive funding from a government but operates without oversight or representation from that government.

According to the University of London, the history of NGOs date back to 1839 and by 1914 there were already more than 1,000 NGOs with international scope. Today, there are more than 40,000 NGOs that operate internationally, while millions more are active at the national level. For instance, the Chicago Tribune reported in 2008 that Russia had 277,000 such groups, while India has 3.3 million. NGOs have grown at a phenomenal pace, especially in the last two decades, creating a need for millions of jobs – both paid and volunteer based.

But the modern “non-governmental organization” as we know it today only came about with the establishment of the United Nations in 1945.

And NGOs perform many duties:

  • Community health promotion and education (such as hygiene and waste disposal).
  • Education and public safety.
  • Managing emerging health crises (HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis B).
  • Community social problems (juvenile crimes, run-aways, street children, prostitution).
  • Environmental (sustainable water and energy resources).
  • Economic (micro loans, skills training, financial education and consulting).
  • Development (school and infrastructure construction).
  • Disaster relief.
  • Women’s issues (women’s and children’s rights, counseling, literacy issues).

Well Known NGOs

Amnesty International
According to its website, this organization “Amnesty International is a global movement of more than 3 million supporters, members and activists in more than 150 countries and territories who campaign to end grave abuses of human rights.”

UNESCO
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization was founded in 1945 and has worked since that time to “create the conditions for dialogue among civilizations, cultures and peoples, based upon respect for commonly shared values.”

UNICEF
The United Nations Children’s Fund was founded in 1946 and focuses on children’s rights, nurturing, and advocacy issues for children around the world.

Types of NGOs

Based on the popular NGOs that have been discussed, you have a clearer understanding of what such an organization does or hopes to accomplish, but there are many types of NGO, divided into orientation (charitable, service, participatory, empowering) and level of cooperation (community based, city wide, national, and international).

Legal or Charitable Status

Though it has no internationally recognized legal definition, an NGO generally refers to an organization that operates independently from any government as a charity. In the United States, any group seeking non-profit, tax exempt (503(c)) status must register with their local government as well as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

Information on establishing your 503(c) organization is available in a number of locations, including your local library, government offices, and different online resources. The IRS website includes information such as frequently asked questions for charitable, tax exempt organizations, plus the necessary forms to get your NGO registered in a timely fashion. Another good resource for a U.S based group is the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Difference Between NGOs & Non-Profits

Everyone, it seems, has a cause. Provide disaster relief, sustainable living, bring healthcare to the less fortunate, raise literacy rates. These are all noble endeavors, and while you may never go on to form a non-profit or Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) like The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, The International Red Cross, or The Salvation Army, the call to do something good and selfless stirs in many people a desire for knowledge – to learn more, and to understand what can be done to help.

What is an NGO?

Though it has no internationally recognized legal definition, an NGO generally refers to an organization that operates independently from any government – though it may receive funding from a government but operates without oversight or representation from that government. For instance, some reports have said that international NGOs raise about $50 billion each year in support, while U.S. based groups and supporters contributed about $13 billion of that total just in 2009, according to InterAction, a Washington, D.C. alliance of U.S.-based international NGOs.

NGOs perform many duties:

  • Community health promotion and education (such as hygiene and waste disposal).
  • Managing emerging health crises (HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis B).
  • Community social problems (juvenile crimes, run-aways, street children, prostitution).
  • Environmental (sustainable water and energy resources).
  • Economic (micro loans, skills training, financial education and consulting).
  • Development (school and infrastructure construction).
  • Women’s issues (women’s and children’s rights, counseling, literacy issues).

What is a Non-Profit?

The Cornell University Law School define a non-profit as: “… a group organized for purposes other than generating profit and in which no part of the organization’s income is distributed to its members, directors, or officers.” While there are many types of charitable or nonprofit organizations, the most common is a Section 501(c) (3) organization, according to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. This type of organization usually fulfills purposes that are:

  • Religious,
  • Charitable,
  • Scientific,
  • Public safety,
  • Literary,
  • Educational,
  • Fostering national or international amateur sporting,
  • or Preventing cruelty to children or animals,
  • but all on a much smaller scale.

The Biggest Difference between the Two Organization Types
The biggest difference with an NGO is the scope of work that most non-profits assume. Many non-profits are affiliated with churches, boys and girls clubs, and alumni associations. An NGO, on the other hand, has broader and internationally driven footprint, often working in isolated and far flung climates of lawlessness, widespread famine and disease, military bases, and large scale disaster such as hurricane relief.

DifferenceBetween.net summarizes the differences between a non-profit and an NGO as:

  • An NGO’s funds may be raised by the government, but it maintains a non-governmental position, with no need for government representation. They are also known as civil society organizations.
  • A non-profit organization uses its extra funds for the purpose of the organization, rather than dividing it between the shareholders and the owners of the organization. Examples of non-profits are public arts organizations, trade unions and charitable organizations.