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 and 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.