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What is a Non-Governmental Organization?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A non-governmental organization (NGO) is a type of non-profit organization that works to promote human good while operating separately from any national government. The definition of an NGO varies slightly from nation to nation, but most NGOs fall within this framework. Because of the somewhat nebulous definition, the total number of NGOs worldwide is unknown, with a wide range of estimates available.

Some NGOs work with governments and the United Nations to accomplish their ends, with certain NGOs being granted consultancy status by the United Nations. Consultancy status allows an NGO to use the knowledge and supplies of the United Nations to work effectively in its area of expertise. It also permits the United Nations to allow an NGO to take over humanitarian efforts if the NGO is deemed competent to handle them.

NGOs come in all shapes and sizes. The largest NGO is the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Society, which provides health care and disaster relief worldwide. The Red Cross was founded in 1863, making it one of the older NGOs. Most NGOs were founded in the second half of the twentieth century, when citizens became concerned that their governments were not meeting the needs of the poor, hungry, and sick. The Red Cross is an example of an international operational NGO, one which implements policies and procedures directly to improve living conditions. Amnesty International is another example of an NGO which works with the United Nations and various governments to promote global human rights. Amnesty International is an international advocacy NGO, primarily concerned with raising awareness and creating policy change.

NGOs also usually have three areas they might influence. Community NGOs work within a small regional area, while national NGOs work on a national basis. International NGOs, of which there were an estimated 40,000 in 2006, work globally to effect policy change and improve situations on the ground. Some NGOs integrate operations and advocacy in their work.

Some NGOs have large budgets supported by a variety of sources, while others work with limited funding. Many NGOs also establish partnerships with other organizations including the United Nations, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund. These partnerships make the NGOs stronger while ensuring that the same humanitarian work is not being performed twice, conserving valuable resources. NGOs run the gamut from Christian organizations to profoundly atheist ones, and individuals interested in contributing to the work of an NGO are encouraged to research the organization so that they understand how funds or supplies are being used.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By jessiwan — On Nov 18, 2013

Is peta an ngo, too?

By anon90873 — On Jun 18, 2010

thanks wisegeek.

By anon64406 — On Feb 07, 2010

thank you for good information. it is easy to understand the definition of NGO.

By anon42163 — On Aug 19, 2009

i love this site. this is what i've been looking for. thanks wisegeek, you are simply great

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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