What is an NGO (non-governmental organization)?

By Jean Folger AAA

A non-governmental organization (NGO) is a non-profit, citizen-based group that functions independently of government. NGOs, sometimes called civil societies, are organized on community, national and international levels to serve specific social or political purposes, and are cooperative, rather than commercial, in nature.

Examples of NGOs include those that support human rights, advocate for improved health or encourage political participation. Two broad groups of NGOs are identified by the World Bank: operational NGOs, which focus on development projects; and advocacy NGOs, which are organized to promote particular causes. Certain NGOs may fall under both categories simultaneously.

While the term "NGO" has various interpretations, it is generally accepted to include private organizations that operate without government control and that are non-profit and non-criminal. Other definitions further clarify NGOs as associations that are non-religious and non-military.

Some NGOs rely primarily on volunteers, while others support a paid staff. As non-profits, NGOs rely on a variety of sources for funding, including membership dues, private donations, the sale of goods and services, and grants. Despite their independence from government, some NGOs rely significantly on government funding.

Large NGOs may have budgets in the millions or billions of dollars.

A number of NGO variations exist, including:

  • BINGO: business-friendly international NGO (example: Red Cross)
  • ENGO: environmental NGO (Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund)
  • INGO: international NGO (Oxfam)
  • QUANGO; quasi-autonomous NGO (International Organization for Standardization - (ISO))


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