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.”

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.”

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.