A non-governmental organization (NGO) is a group that functions independently of any government and is established on community, national, and international levels to serve a social or political goal. NGOs are sometimes also called civil society organizations. These organizations might focus activities in areas such as health or health emergencies, education, infrastructure, advocacy of minority rights, support of the poor, protection of the environment, or the reduction of crime. NGOs were first recognized in Article 71 of the Charter of the United Nations at its 1945 forming.
NGOs tend to play major roles in international development, aid, and philanthropy, and though they may run budgets of up to millions or billions of dollars each year, they are non-profit organizations. For these operating budgets, NGOs will rely on various funding sources, including private donations, membership dues, and government grants. Notable NGOs include the American Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and Amnesty International.
NGOs are sometimes broken into two smaller types: Operational NGOs and Advocacy NGOs. Operational NGOs tend to focus on the design and implementation of development projects. Advocacy NGOs tend to defend or promote specific causes and seek to influence public policy. Often, an NGO has functions of both of these types. But the distinction is drawn for the benefit of those NGOs that operate specifically as one or the other.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have different objectives. These objectives tend to depend on what the NGO focuses on, and how the achievement of those objectives is sought depends on whether the NGO focuses more on operational or developmental strategies or advocacy activities. Common objectives include the following:
- Social objectives—these tend to be human rights, such as women's rights or consumer protections.
- Economic objectives—often, NGOs can attempt to alleviate problems caused by poverty, such as providing education, training, healthcare, or food.
- Political objectives—NGOs can work in various areas with political objectives, such as in war or refugee protection; for example, an NGO can support refugees by providing them with aid.
- Environmental objectives—these tend to be NGOs focused on increasing awareness of climate change and its inevitable consequences.
NGOs can engage in several functions to achieve their objectives:
- Provide aid—aid can be any financial support or include requisites such as food or clothing. Often aid is the most natural form of support.
- Work with governments—governments can support groups that help them achieve specific goals that the government is unable to address directly.
- Advocate rights—many organizations work to ensure equal rights for all are realized.
- Training—it is impossible to always provide monetary aid; training can address this, giving people a chance to make a livelihood and offer them independence.
- Awareness—much like in advocating for rights, awareness includes advocacy for a wide range of issues, where raising awareness can help individuals understand and take action on issues.
- Garner support—many problems tackled by NGOs require the attention of as many people as possible in order to bring a stop or find a solution to those problems.
Depending on the region an NGO expects to operate in, there may be government regulations for the formation of the NGO. Technically, the government and regulations are not involved in the activities of the NGO, but these laws may regulate them through the NGOs filing information that show the funding, management, and activities of an NGO. These regulations have no interest in the value or the kind of work of an NGO but would suggest an NGO should not partake in illegal activities as part of their advocacy.
Any group of people may form an NGO without government approval or involvement. But, should the NGO wish to obtain legal benefits, such as tax exemption, it should incorporate and register as an NGO under the relevant laws of the state in which its main operations are located. Further, to form a charitable NGO, the NGO does not have to incorporate; all that is needed is a legal contract and deed that conveys property (this is true for the United States; some regions may require incorporation or have other regulatory requirements).
NGOs rely on a variety of sources of funding, including (despite their independence from governments) government funding. Depending on the size of an NGO, the budgets may stretch into the billions of dollars. Common sources of funding include the following:
- Membership dues
- Private donations from individuals, private sector businesses, and philanthropic organizations
- The sale of goods and services (merchandising)
- Foreign governments and organizations.
In the United States, the tax exemption is based in part on the functions of the NGO. For example, an NGO organized for religious, educational, or literary purposes; or organized to support certain sports or scientific testing for public safety are generally capable of receiving tax exemptions on all of their funding at the federal and state level.
However, NGOs engaged in political activities may only be eligible for some tax exemptions (as the activities of these NGOs would fall under various laws regulating political activities, which can be incredibly concerned with the movement of money in political campaigns). Government and IRS restrictions may relate to excessive compensation, lobbying beyond a limited degree, certain commercial activities, and governance.
There are a number of variations on NGOs (besides operation and advocacy) that have been noted. These "types" are better considered to be acknowledged versions of an NGO, and in many cases refer to NGOs that may not be as non-governmental as the name suggests.
For example, GONGO is a term used to refer to a government-organized NGO and can be considered a derogatory term. GONGOs have been used to advocate on behalf of repressive government regimes in international arenas. Or QUANGO, a chiefly British term and also considered to be derogatory, the QUANGO refers to a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization that relies on public funding and has senior officials appointed by the government, indicating direct governmental involvement.
Other "types" of NGOs commonly recognized include the following:
- INGO, an international NGO
- ENGO, an environmental NGO
- NGDO, or non-governmental development organization
- DONGO, a donor-organized NGO
- BINGO, a business and industry NGO (often set up by industry groups to represent their interests)
- CBO, a community-based NGO, often specific to a limited community