What Is an NGO?

A non-governmental organization (NGO) is a non-profit group that functions independently of any government. NGOs, sometimes called civil societies, are organized on community, national and international levels to serve a social or political goal such as humanitarian causes or the environment.

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.

About NGOs

While "NGO" has various interpretations, the term is generally accepted to include non-profit, private organizations that operate outside of government control. Some NGOs rely primarily on volunteers, while others support a paid staff. The World Bank identifies two broad groups of NGOs:

  • Operational NGOs, which focus on the design and implementation of development projects.
  • Advocacy NGOs, which defend or promote a specific cause and seek to influence public policy.

Some 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 heavily 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 variations of the NGO acronym exist, including:

  • INGO: An international NGO. For example, the Conference of INGOs of the Council of Europe is comprised of more than 300 participating INGOs.
  • GONGO: This means government-organized NGO, often derogatory. Foreign Policy describes GONGOs as a government-backed NGOs set up to advocate on the behalf of a repressive regime in the international arena.
  • QUANGO: Chiefly a British term, often derogatory. A quango is a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization that relies on public funding. Its senior officials are appointed by the government. A Financial Times opinion piece writes that quangos are seen as useless and are often staffed by quangocrats.
  • ENGO: An environmental NGO, for example, Greenpeace or the World Wildlife Fund. Both groups operate internationally in addition to advocating for the environment. They are often simply referred to as NGOs.