What Is an NGO?

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.

Key Takeaways

  • NGOs, or non-governmental organizations, play a major role in international development, aid, and philanthropy.
  • NGOs are non-profit by definition, but may run budgets of millions or up to billions of dollars each year.
  • As such, NGOs rely on a variety of funding sources from private donations and membership dues to government contribution.
  • There are several distinct types of NGO, each with its own mandate.

About NGOs

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.

Two broad groups of NGOs are identified by the World Bank:

  • Operational NGOs, which focus on development projects.
  • Advocacy NGOs, which are organized to promote particular causes.

Certain NGOs may fall under both categories simultaneously.

Examples of NGOs include those that support human rights, advocate for improved health or encourage political participation.

How NGOs are Funded

As non-profits, NGOs rely on a variety of sources for funding, including:

  • membership dues
  • private donations
  • the sale of goods and services
  • 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.

(For related reading, see "How do NGOs get funding?")

Types of NGOs

A number of NGO variations exist, including:

  • BINGO: business-friendly international NGO (example: Red Cross)
  • ENGO: environmental NGO (Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund)
  • GONGO: government-organized non-governmental organization (International Union for Conservation of Nature)
  • INGO: international NGO (Oxfam)
  • QUANGO: quasi-autonomous NGO (International Organization for Standardization [ISO])