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What Is An NGO?

According to the United Nations Charter, non-governmental organizations are organizations with a consultative role with the UN. Today, the term “NGO” refers to a huge variety of organizations independent from governments that conduct human rights, humanitarian and development work. NGOs can work regionally with a small staff or internationally with hundreds of people working on various projects. In this article, we’ll discuss the history of NGOs, what types exist, how NGOs are funded, and what are some of the best-known NGOs in the world.

While there is no definitive definition of an NGO, NGOs are typically non-governmental, non-profit organizations working in areas like human rights, humanitarian aid, and other social and political issues.

A brief history of NGOs

Charitable groups existed long before the term “NGO” ever appeared in the UN Charter in 1945. These organizations were often religious and focused on issues like poverty. One of the oldest organizations of this type was founded in 1617 by St. Vinvent de Paul. Known as the Ladies of Charity, the organization focused on poverty in France. They remain operational and perform activities such as running a clothes and food pantry, providing groceries during holidays, and distributing religious materials.

In the 19th century, organizations dedicated to abolition began appearing. The Anti-Slavery Society formed in 1839 and a year later, held the world’s first anti-slavery convention in London. The following decades were busy as the organization promoted alternatives to sugar grown on slave plantations, helped establish the first comprehensive anti-slavery treaty, and campaigned against King Leopold II’s slavery practices in the Congo Free State. The organization still exists today under the name Anti-Slavery International.

As globalization increased, so did NGOs. As Peter Hall-Jones writes, the surge in NGOs can also be attributed to the World Bank and IMF public services cuts. As independent organizations, NGOs have had more freedom and flexibility to fill in where needed. NGOs have also enjoyed higher degrees of trust, though because of NGOs’ funding ties to governments and corporations – as well as patterns of abuse – many NGOs struggle with maintaining their reputations. While it’s hard to get the exact number of NGOs in operation today there are as many as 1.5 million in just the United States.

How many types of NGOs are there?

NGO is a vague term, so many types of organizations fall under the NGO umbrella. In a 2014 summary, the World Bank described how it classifies NGOs. There are two main categories: operations NGOs and advocacy NGOs. Operations NGOs focus on designing and implementing development-related projects while advocacy NGOs “defend or promote a specific cause” and want to influence the World Bank’s practices and policies. The World Bank goes on to classify operations organizations as community-based organizations (CBOs), national organizations, and international organizations.

Membership vs. non-membership

NGOs can be broken down further based on their structure. NGOConnect has a 2011 “NGOTips” document that outlines different NGO types, including the difference between membership and non-membership organizations. In membership organizations, members are the top leadership and typically perform activities that are beneficial to the members, i.e. a veteran or teacher’s organization. In formal membership organizations, members may have the power to appoint the board of directors, remove a director, change policies, or even dissolve the nonprofit completely.

In non-membership NGOs, the board of directors is the ultimate authority. This structure makes things less complicated as it limits how many people have power. Most larger charities focused on serving the general public are non-membership organizations. You may still hear non-membership NGOs refer to donors as “members.” However, as attorney Christine Mathias writes in her article on the difference between membership and non-membership nonprofits, this is a fundraising tactic and doesn’t bestow any legal power.

Important acronyms

Most people won’t think about NGOs in terms of membership vs. non-membership; they’ll classify NGOs based on their missions and what they focus on. Here are some acronyms you might come across:

INGO (international NGO) – A self-explanatory acronym, INGOs refer to international NGOs like Amnesty International.

ENGOs (environmental NGOs) – Environmental NGOs first spread in the 1970s and 1980s. Some of the most famous include the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace.

YOUNGO (youth NGO) – Youth NGOs focus on the rights of children and youth. YOUNGO is also the name of the official youth constituency at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. It’s made of organizations and individuals; any young person is eligible to join.

RINGO (religious international NGO) – RINGOs are organizations with close ties to religious organizations. World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization, and Islamic Relief Worldwide are both examples of RINGOs. We’ve also seen RINGO used to refer to “research-oriented and independent organizations” in UN documents. These are non-profit, independent organizations committed to addressing climate change, finding ways to reduce greenhouse gases and climate impacts, and bridging science and policy.

BINGO (business-friendly international NGO) – This acronym typically refers to large NGOs. You may see it refer to Business and Industry NGOs, as well, which are NGOs established by a business or industry to represent their interests.

CSO (civil society organization) – The UN defines CSOs as any non-profit, voluntary citizens group organized locally, nationally, or internationally. CSOs serve several functions, including providing services and advocating for causes. The term is often used interchangeably with NGO.

How are NGOs funded?

To pay for their operations and programs, NGOs receive funding through a variety of channels, such as membership dues, selling goods and services, philanthropic foundations, and grants. Private donations also make up a significant chunk of funding for most NGOs. Very wealthy people often donate large sums. After pledging to give away most of her health in 2019, MacKenzie Scott had donated around $12 billion to over 1,200 nonprofits by May 2022. NGOs love getting these rare, huge donations, but they’re also dependent on a large number of small donations. Many NGOs also receive government funding, which may affect the appearance of independence, if not the reality.

Private donations to NGOs are often tax deductible. In the US, the organization must have 501(c)(3) status, which means it meets the IRS’ qualifications. As part of the exemption, a charitable organization has to make its approved application, supporting documents, and last three annual information returns public. NGOs focused on politics may not qualify because 501(c)(3) groups are forbidden from participating or intervening in political campaigns for a candidate. Nonpartisan political groups often qualify, however, including NGOs focused on voter education and increasing voter turnout. Not all NGOs are tax deductible, so donors should always make sure before attempting to write their donations off on their taxes.

What are the best-known NGOs in the world?

There are likely millions of NGOs in the world with varying mandates, but some are more famous than others. Here are some of the largest and best-known operating today:

International Rescue Committee

Abbreviated as IRC, this refugee-focused NGO works on projects related to WASH (water, sanitation, hygiene), shelter, education, self-sufficiency, and resettlement. IRC works in over 40 countries.

Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières)

With a presence in 60+ countries, Doctors Without Borders is one of the world’s most recognizable NGOs. Since 1971, it has provided medical aid in conflict zones and following natural disasters. It is currently reckoning with allegations of widespread racial discrimination among its staff.

Amnesty International

Amnesty International was first founded in 1961 to support amnesty for political prisoners, but it has since expanded to campaign against torture, the death penalty, discrimination, and other human rights abuses. It has a presence in 150+ countries.

Catholic Relief Services

One of the world’s largest international religious NGOs, Catholic Relief Services works in microfinancing, WASH projects, emergency response and recovery, education, agriculture, and health. It has a presence in 100+ countries.

Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee (BRAC)

While it operates in fewer countries than other NGOs on this list (it works in 11 countries), the number of people served in those countries has made BRAC one of the world’s largest anti-poverty NGOs. The organization focuses on social development and economic participation in its mission to eradicate extreme poverty, achieve gender equality, address climate change, and more.

Are NGOs doing a good job?

NGOs serve a valuable purpose in a world with increasing inequality, weakening democracy, and escalating climate change. Annual reports reveal how much NGOs are capable of. As an example, Water School (a charity working to improve clean-water access in Uganda and Kenya) accomplished many goals in 2021 such as providing WASH training and reducing severe diarrhea cases by 97% across 12,000 households. If you are interested in learning more about the work of NGOs, consider taking an online course.

For the good it accomplishes, the NGO field is not immune to criticism, nor should it be. A common criticism relates to the power wielded by Western-based NGOs that come into other countries. Regional NGOs, grassroots organizations, and government institutions could see their influence and resources diminished in favor of foreign-led programs. NGOs are also not invulnerable to bureaucracy, corruption, and the other issues that plague both governments and businesses. NGOs can both do good and cause harm – sometimes simultaneously – which makes transparency, accurate reporting, and accountability essential.

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.