In 1945, the term “non-governmental organization” first appeared in the United Nations Charter after World War II. However, these types of organizations had already existed for many years, advocating for causes such as women’s rights and the end of slavery. Today, there are thousands of NGOs around the world. How is an NGO defined? What different types of NGOs exist?
A brief history of NGOs
Years before the United Nations began using the term “NGO,” these organizations existed in some form. Many, initiated by religious and charitable groups, were very localized and worked within specific communities to address poverty. War also triggered the formation of various NGOs focused on providing medical care, caring for children, and getting supplies to affected areas. The Anti-Slavery Society, formed in 1839, is most likely the first international NGO. It demonstrated how people around the world could unite together for a common cause.
When the United Nations was established in 1945, the term “non-governmental organization” appeared in Chapter 10, Article 71 of the United Nations Charter. There, it was used to define non-government and non-member state organizations that held a consultative role with the UN. In 1950, an international NGO was defined as “any international organization that is not founded by an international treaty.”
What are NGOs?
Today, when most people hear the term “NGO,” they think of an organization that improves lives through one way or another. That’s a fairly accurate, though vague, definition. NGOs can be found locally, nationally, and internationally. When domestic, NGOs are held to that specific country’s laws, but international NGOs are not held to international law. The only exception is the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In the United States, NGOs are technically a type of nonprofit, but not all nonprofits are NGOs. Globally, NGOs can look very different depending on the laws of their country.
What do NGOs do?
Depending on its type, NGOs can work towards a wide variety of goals. According to the World Bank, there are essentially two types of NGOs: operational and advocacy. Operational NGOs focus on development projects, while advocacy NGOs focus on promoting certain causes. Many NGOs, especially large ones, encompass both types at once, though there’s often one area they are more focused on. Areas of work can include emergency relief, international health education, women’s rights, children’s rights, economic development, environmental advocacy, disaster preparation, and more. Some of the most well-known NGOs are:
- Amnesty International
- Mercy Corps
- Doctors Without Borders
- International Rescue Committee
- Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Other types of NGOs
Within the two categories of operational and advocacy, NGOs can be divided up even further based on their specific areas of work. Here are some of the main types:
- BINGO – A “big international” NGO, such as the Red Cross. These are also called “business-friendly” NGOs.
- INGO – An international NGO such as Oxfam.
- ENGO – An environmental NGO like Greenpeace.
- RINGO – A religious international NGO such as Catholic Relief Services.
- CSO – A civil society organization like Amnesty International.
- GONGO – A government-organized organization like International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Just like with the two main definitions (operational and advocacy), NGOs can fall into more than one of the above categories. Many international NGOs hold a consultative status with UN agencies dedicated to their focus of work. As an example, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom has consultative status and special consultative relations with multiple UN entities, such as the UN Economic and Social Council and the UN Conference on Trade and Development. NGOs can also support CBOs (community-based organizations), which are very local. Some CBOs are independent.
How are NGOs funded?
NGOs are funded primarily through grants, loans, membership dues, and private donations. They are also able to get funding from government organizations without losing their NGO status. While some NGOs depend on this type of funding, governments can’t be involved in decisions or oversee what the NGO does. Qualifying NGOs based in the US can apply to the IRS for tax-exempt 503(c) status. If a person donates to a US-based NGO, their donation is tax-deductible if the NGO is a charitable organization.
Why NGOs matter
Why are there so many NGOs? As the world became more globalized and technology allowed for easier communication, more and more people became aware of issues affecting others. At the same time, people lost faith in government organizations and their ability to meet the needs of people both at home and around the world. More NGOs were a natural result.
Today, there are tens of thousands of active NGOs, but are they actually helping? Many NGOs have received negative press in recent years, challenging the idea that these organizations have the greater good in mind. However, overall it seems that NGOs are making a vast positive difference. While not perfect, NGOs are necessary and a vehicle to create positive change.