Written after World War II, the United Nations Charter included the term “non-governmental organizations.” Article 71 reads: “The Economic and Social Council may make suitable arrangements for consultation with non-governmental organizations which are concerned with matters within its competence.” Non-governmental organizations (also known as NGOs) operate separately from the government and work on social and/or political issues. While the term was new in 1945, 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 millions of NGOs around the world. How is an NGO defined? What different types of NGOs exist?
There are many types of NGOs, including ones that focus on advocacy (raising awareness, research), operations (development projects, humanitarian aid), or both. These independent organizations work in every area of society and on issues like health, education, disaster relief, economic empowerment, children’s rights, and more.
A brief history of NGOs
Years before the United Nations began using the term “NGO,” these organizations existed in some form. Many, created by religious and charitable groups, were very localized and worked within specific communities to address poverty. Many NGOs were also formed to address the concerns of war. They focused on 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 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. It defined 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.”
Why are there so many NGOs today? 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.
What are NGOs?
Today, when most people hear the term “NGO,” they think of an organization that strives to improve society. 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, which is an independent organization, but not technically an NGO. In the United States, NGOs are 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 their structure and mission, NGOs can work towards a wide variety of goals. The World Bank separates NGOs into two types: 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.
Different 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 the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
Many NGOs fall into more than one of the above categories. As an example, Greenpeace is both an environmental NGO and an international NGO.
Many international NGOs also hold consultative status with UN agencies dedicated to their focus of work. As an example, the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) 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 mostly funded 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.
What are the world’s largest NGOs?
There are millions of NGOs operating today. What kind of reach do they have? How much revenue are they bringing in and spending on operations? Here are seven of the world’s largest NGOs:
Founded in Great Britain in 1942, Oxfam International is made of 21 independent charitable organizations focused on fighting poverty. As a confederation, Oxfam has a presence in over 90 countries. In 2020, Oxfam America had a revenue of over $73 million, according to their 990 form. Their expenses exceeded that with over $86 million.
International Rescue Committee (IRC) focuses on clean water, sanitation, shelter, and education for refugees and those displaced by war, persecution, and natural disasters. Programs also help with self-sufficiency and resettlement. IRC has a presence in over 40 countries. In 2019, the organization brought in just over $785 million and spent around $775 million.
Founded in 1971, this organization has expanded to over 60 countries. It provides medical help in conflict zones and after natural disasters. According to the organization’s financial records, the organization brought in over $558 million in revenue in 2020, which was an improvement over 2019. It spent around $499.5 million.
Based in the United Kingdom, Amnesty International has been advocating for human rights since 1961. It performs research and organizes awareness and action campaigns on issues like the death penalty, torture, children’s rights, climate change, discrimination, and more. It currently has a presence in over 150 countries. According to the 990 form, Amnesty International USA brought in just over $52 million in 2020 and spent around $51 million.
Save the Children was founded in 1919, which makes it one of the world’s oldest humanitarian NGOs. Its programs focus on children’s rights and provide nutrition, health, shelter, and education during disasters. It has a presence in over 117 countries. According to financial records, Save the Children’s total income in 2020 was £289 million. They spent £283 million.
While BRAC has a smaller country presence than other organizations on this list (BRAC is in 11 countries), they reach 94 million people in Bangladesh alone, which makes it one of the world’s largest non-profits. Its programs focus on economic participation and empowerment. According to a 2020 annual report, its income was almost 88 billion taka while expenses totaled almost 81 billion taka.
Founded in 1956, the Danish Refugee Council works in 40 countries. It focuses on displacement at every stage, including providing humanitarian assistance and helping refugees become self-reliant. As an umbrella organization, the DRC includes CARE Denmark, ActionAid Denmark, and Amnesty International. According to 2020’s annual report, DRC brought in DKK 3.2 billion and made a profit of DKK 1 million.
NGOs: Are they helping or hurting progress?
Today, there are millions of active NGOs, but could they be causing more harm than good? Many NGOs have become embroiled in scandals, challenging the idea that these organizations are up to the task of improving society. In 2020, over 1,000 current and former staffers at Doctors Without Borders signed a statement accusing the revered organization of institutional racism. The statement also called out the organization’s payment system that favored expatriate staffers over local health professionals. According to an NPR article, local MSF workers were earning six times less than expatriate staffers. Their budgets were so tight, many needed to skip meals. The podcast Reveal (created by The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX) covered the scandal in-depth in 2021. This is just one example of an NGO betraying public trust and causing harm. What this shows is that NGOs are not immune from the problems that plague governmental agencies and corporations.
Many NGOs hold governments and corporations accountable, but who are NGOs accountable to? According to fundsforNGOs, all types of NGOs are accountable to groups like local communities, donors, and project partners, which can include government institutions. Financial transparency, public annual reports, third-party audits, publicized activities, and more are all important internal accountability mechanisms that improve an NGO’s reputation and funding potential. If an NGO falls short of self-monitoring, there are watchdog groups that track complaints about organizations and suspicious behavior. In many cases (like the Doctors Without Borders scandal), whistleblowers and journalists expose an organization’s problems. There may be many different types of NGOs, but to be a force for good, they all need to be held accountable.
Did you find this article useful? Sign up to our newsletter for paid human rights internships, online courses, master’s degrees, scholarships and other human rights opportunities.