Disclosure: Human Rights Careers may be compensated by course providers.

What Are Typical NGO Activities?

There are tens of thousands of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) in the world today. The term dates back to the 1945 United Nations Charter, but this type of organization has existed for much longer. As an example, the abolitionist group American Anti-Slavery Society (Frederick Douglas was a key member) was founded in 1833. In 1950, international NGOs were defined as “any international organization not founded by an international treaty.” There are also NGOs that focus on local and/or national issues. They are found everywhere. What are the typical NGO activities? What is their role in society?

What do NGOs do?

Depending on their structure and goals, NGOs can fill many roles. Typically, they’re divided into either operational or advocacy NGOs, but many serve both functions. Here are some examples of what non-governmental organizations focus on:

Advocating for the unheard

Advocacy is raising awareness of issues and bringing them into the public view. Most people in the world don’t have a big platform of their own to draw attention to things like human rights violations. NGOs provide a platform by reporting on the issues, sharing personal stories, and educating the public. The goal is to promote and trigger action. The more people know about an issue, the more likely it is that something is done about it. Amnesty International is a great example of this. They’re considered the world’s largest grassroots human rights organization. Through actions like research campaigns, petitions, and letter-writing, Amnesty shines a spotlight on human rights issues.

Researching and monitoring human rights abuses

Research and monitoring are essential tasks for NGOs. Using data, organizations can track and analyze local, national, or global patterns of oppression. Human Rights Watch and the Southern Poverty Law Center are two examples of NGOs with a prominent research-and-monitoring role. HRW, founded in 1978, is the largest human rights organization based in the United States. They conduct fact-finding missions and publish research reports on human rights violations around the world. Since 1990, the Southern Poverty Law Center has published an annual census of hate groups in the US.

Promoting sustainable development

To address issues like poverty, equality, and climate change, sustainable development is crucial. In 2015, the UN adopted a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals at the Sustainable Development Summit. In the years since, NGOs have emerged as a powerful leader in this area. The sustainable development field is diverse. NGOs work on investigating alternative energy sources, supporting local economic projects, and promoting gender equality.

Providing aid to those suffering

NGOs can also take on humanitarian, relief-oriented roles. These organizations focus on bringing aid to those affected by armed conflict, natural disasters, famines, and more. This includes bringing water, food, medicine, clothing, and other necessities. The International Committee of the Red Cross is a famous example. It was founded in 1863 and is based in Geneva. Its mandate is to protect victims of internal and international armed conflicts, including prisoners, refugees, and civilians.

Working towards social justice

Social justice is only achieved when societies uphold human rights, access, participation, and equity. In the past, the term ”social justice” mostly referred to economics and wealth. The definition has since expanded. Social justice now encompasses fairness in every sector of society, such as housing, health, and employment. All NGOs are invested in social justice in some way, whether they’re focused on healthcare access, freedom of expression, gender equality, racial equality, or LGBTQ+ rights.

Take a free NGO online course!

Where do NGOs get their funding?

To perform their typical activities, NGOs need funding. They receive funds through a combination of membership dues, private donations, grants, and loans. In addition to the activities we outlined above, NGOs spend a lot of time and effort on securing needed funds. Organizing fundraisers, applying for grants, and writing tenders all help an NGO build support and fulfill their goals. Many NGOs are also able to receive some funding from government organizations, but the NGO must remain independent. Legal designations and rules on how NGOs can use their funds vary from country to country. Many are under-resourced, so it’s common for NGOs to join forces with other similar-minded organizations to make a bigger impact. NGOs also often partner with government departments and corporations.

Why do NGOs matter?

Over the decades, non-governmental organizations have played a big role in society. Unlike governments, NGOs can work internationally more easily. They are more often welcomed into areas with conflict. NGOs conduct important research, hold governments and institutions like the United Nations accountable, and contribute to development. There are as many NGOs as problems in the world. These organizations are not without their flaws, however. Many NGOs have been accused of corruption and even abuse. Better policies, like increased transparency with funding and improved evaluation systems, can help identify harmful or ineffective NGOs.

About the author

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.