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.