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How to Start an NGO

The term “non-governmental organization” has existed for decades, but not-for-profit charities have been around much longer. In early days, these organizations were mostly localized and often started by religious groups. The term” non-governmental organization” appears in Chapter 10, Article 71 of the UN Charter. According to the World Bank, there are two main types of NGOs – operational and advocacy – though many encompass both goals. NGOs can focus on emergency relief, women’s rights, economic development, and more. How do you start an NGO?

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Step 1: Find your passion

The first step to starting an NGO is to identify what cause(s) you’re passionate about. If you haven’t worked or volunteered for an NGO before, you should before starting your own. Find ones that focus on causes you’re interested in. Working with an established NGO will help you gain experience and knowledge in the field. You’ll see the challenges and rewards that come with the work. Being in the field will also help you find potential board and team members for your NGO.

Step 2: Find the right people

NGOs are never just one or two people. There needs to be a board, administrators, fundraisers, project managers, educators and so on. You want to find people who are passionate, reliable, and skilled. You might connect with your team from your time working with an NGO or through a traditional hiring process. What matters is that you feel confident about your choices.

Step 3: Clarify your vision and goals

Once you have some experience and know what causes you want to focus on, it’s time to clarify your vision and goals. What is the purpose of your NGO? Your goals should be realistic. A big-picture goal like “End all war” is noble but impossible for one NGO. The more focused and specific you are, the more likely it is that your NGO will make a difference. Consider taking a free NGO course such as Introduction to the Nonprofit Sector, Nonprofit Organizations, Nonprofit Leadership and Governance to develop a better understanding of key concepts of NGO leadership and governance.

With your board, you’ll want to write a vision statement, a list of goals, and how you hope to achieve them. Think about the words you choose since these will have a prominent position on your website and fundraising material. Anyone interested in supporting or working for the NGO will want to know your mission.

Step 4: Register the NGO

NGOs need to meet certain legal requirements, which vary by country. Registering an NGO makes it a legal entity. Research what government body registers NGOs. You’ll have to compile various documents for the application and give information like the NGO’s name, its purpose, and who is on the board. Take your time with this process to ensure you’re getting everything right. The process can also be helpful because it’ll let you know if you’re missing anything in your organizational structure.

Step 5: Conduct local research, network, and form an action plan

You have your vision statement, goals, and registration. Before jumping in, it’s time to lay the groundwork. Research the areas you want to work in. Identify the challenges, cultural history, political state, and so on. This context is essential to being effective. While you’re doing this, talk to other NGOs. Find out what challenges they’ve faced and the progress they’ve made. These relationships can become partnerships, allowing organizations to do more good together than they would apart. With this groundwork, you can then form an action plan on how to make your NGO effective.

Step 6: Write a budget and fundraise

Money can be complicated, so having people on your team who know what they’re doing is essential. How much funding you have and how you use the money can make or break your organization. You’ll also need to figure out where you’ll get the money from. NGOs have a handful of options such as loans, grants, private donations, and membership dues. It’s also possible to get funding from the government. Discuss your finance options with your team. When you start the fundraising process, tap into your network. Always evaluate your messaging, so you get better and better at appealing to donors.

Step 7: Start your projects

The last step in establishing your NGO is to get started on a project. You’ll want to start small at first with attainable goals. Assign everyone a clear role, decide on a budget for the project, and set up a monitoring-and-evaluation system. This will let you assess what’s working and what’s not during the project, and then afterward, you’ll be able to evaluate the final result.

Conclusion: the goal is to become obsolete

Any NGO should hope it becomes obsolete at some point. This means that the need they’re addressing has been met. The problem has been solved. If it becomes more challenging to find issues to tackle, that’s a win. Odds are, though, the need will outlive the NGO. When starting an NGO, always consider the long-term. Build a strong network and relationships that will last. Take the time to set up a solid foundation that will hold your organization for years to come. When you’re thorough and thoughtful in these early stages, you’ll set your NGO up for success.

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About the author

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Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.