Democracy & Justice

What is an NGO: Definition, Duties, Types, Role in Civil Society

As NGOs become increasingly popular, and essential, in the public sector, it’s important to understand the role they play in society and the impact they have globally and locally. But what is an NGO, how does it function, and what is its purpose?

by Cassandra Devaney


What is an NGO?

NGO generally describes a group that acts independently of any government. The term was coined by the United Nations (UN) in 1945 in order to distinguish between government bodies and private organizations, and is relatively modern. NGOs are typically formed by private citizens with a mission or service in mind, and they use their platform for advocacy in the non-profit sector. The World Bank describes NGOs as “private organizations that pursue activities to relieve suffering, promote the interests of the poor, protect the environment, provide basic social services, or undertake community development.” NGOs encompass a wide range of structures: there are large and small groups, some operate locally or around the world, some focus strictly on one issue while others advocate for a variety of topics. Over the past decade, the number of NGOs and their influence in different sectors grew exponentially. These groups now not only work at the grassroots level, but also work as advisors to governments, international agencies, and even the UN.

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What is the difference between an NGO and an NPO?

Though the terminology is often conflated and used interchangeably, nongovernmental organizations and nonprofit organizations (NPOs) have distinct characterizations and function differently. While an NGO refers to a group organized to operate autonomously of the government, an NPO is a group or organization created for a purpose other than generating a profit. As noted, an NGO operates without any oversight, participation, or representation from that government and can operate on a local, national, or international level. An NPO generally seeks to raise substantial funds in order to provide goods or services to the public but none of the organization's income is distributed to its members or directors. NPOs tend to focus on a specific cause or issues, operating on either a local or national scale and are organized under state law. They can take many forms — including churches, public schools, public charities, public clinics and hospitals, political organizations, legal aid societies, volunteer services organizations, labor unions, professional associations, research institutes, and museums — but are limited in their ability to only pursue purposes permitted by statute. When comparing the two organizations, it is important to know that many NGOs are also nonprofits; however, only some nonprofits are NGOs. A nonprofit can be classified as an NGO when it operates across borders. The two organizations have many similarities in supporting social goals, with the main differentiator being the scope of the work = with NGOs ability to operate internationally, while NPOs operate at a local or national level.

What is the role of NGOs in civil society?

NGOs are essential actors in civil society and play an increasingly important role in promoting societal change. NGO work can include, but is not limited to, social, political, environmental, and human rights issues. NGOs develop and operate community-based groups to improve and maintain infrastructure, support start ups and innovation work, serve as liaisons between the government and the general public in order to facilitate communication, provide training and practical assistance to better address projects and community concerns, contribute to research and evaluation of the undertaken projects, and work as spokespersons, advocating for marginalized or otherwise unrepresented groups. Their work helps develop and improve communities, encourage citizen participation, and bring greater attention to local and global issues. However, as illustrated by Liberties’ Civic Space Policy Paper 2022, NGOs often operate in a hostile environment as they face increasing attacks from governments and corporations seeking to suppress their criticism. Their aggressive silencing strategies include smear campaigns aimed at discrediting them, SLAPPs, restrictive regulations, politically-biased funding and exclusion from public consultation. Rather than creating an enabling environment, governments in Europe are intentionally shrinking civic space and undermining the checks and balances of NGOs.

What duties do NGOs have?

To ensure the success of their objectives and goals, NGOs should adhere to certain fundamental principles and values. Given the role NGOs play in all areas of development, it's particularly important that NGOs are transparent and accountable about their activities. Ensuring that members, stakeholders, and beneficiaries of the NGOs undertakings are fully aware of the organization's funding, operations, and objectives increases credibility among all the parties involved and contributes to the success of the NGO.

  • Transparency: An NGO should be open about the activities and projects in which it participates and organizes. This transparency includes information about where it gets its funding, how it operates internally, and who it supports. The information should be easily accessible and available to relevant stakeholders.
  • Accountability: An NGO, and the individuals working within the organization, have a responsibility to account for its various activities, finances, policies, and other undertakings.

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What are the different types of Non Governmental Organizations?

There are numerous ways to classify and categorize different types of NGOs. The World Bank typology divides NGOs into two categories: Operational NGOs and Advocacy NGOs. An operational NGO aims to design and implement development-related projects; they can be national, international or even community-based. An advocacy NGO aims to promote a specific cause by raising awareness and knowledge through various activities. NGOs can also be classified by the activities and work in which they engage. Here are some examples:

  • NGDO, or Non Governmental Development Organization: an NGO that works exclusively on developmental issues, such as Oxfam International.
  • INGO, or International NGO: an NGO that is registered in one country but operating and conducting activities in two or more countries, such as Amnesty International or the we, the Civil Liberties Union for Europe.
  • QUANGO, or Quasi-autonomous NGO: an NGO that is funded by taxpayers, but not controlled directly by the central government, such as the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. They can deliver public services, give advice or regulate behavior.
  • ENGO, or Environmental NGO: an NGO that works on environmental issues. ENGOs can play a crucial role in helping conduct research, facilitate policy development, building institutional capacity, and help people live more sustainable lifestyles. Examples include Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund.
  • DONGO, or Donor Organized NGO: an NGO set up by a donor agency to carry out specific activities; the activities are commonly limited to a particular country.
  • BINGO, or Business and Industry NGO: an NGO set up by business or industry groups to represent their collective interests in other fora or in interaction with other stakeholders, such as the Global Climate Coalition.
  • CBO, or Community Based Organization: an NGO that is based in, and usually limited to, the specific community where it was set up, such as The American Legion. It serves to satisfy the needs of the community.

How are NGOs funded?

NGOs are funded by a variety of sources, including individual donors, private charities, foundations, corporations, and governments. From governments, the aid can come in the form of bilateral or multilateral aid — one of the biggest sources of funding for NGOs. Examples include aid from groups like the United Nations or the World Bank. Aid from individual donors/private charities/foundations/corporations also serve as a major funding source for NGOs and can be useful partners for smaller or localized NGOs. Funding comes in different forms. General operational grants, which are increasingly difficult to obtain, are intended to cover general expenses and further the mission of the organisation, whereas project-based funding is restricted to costs related to a specific project. Governments also make an open call for state funding grants, with the EU also chipping in, however these are also becoming increasingly scarce. Funding may also come from donations and gifts, generally from individuals or informal groups. Regardless of the source, the funds provided by donors are crucial to the operation of NGOs and allow for NGOs to continue their work.

Liberties takes an ethical approach to fundraising, which means we not only follow national and international laws and regulations, but also adhere to ethical standards in our funds seeking activities as per our recently adopted Ethical Fundraising Policy. We rely on individual donations, which help us become stronger, louder and more sustainable. You can easily donate on our website in a secure way.


Further reading:

What is Civic Space? Why Is It a Keystone in Any Democratic Society? How Do We Protect It?

Civil Society Helps All of Us, But It Needs Our Protection Too

What Is Freedom of Assembly and How Is the Situation in Europe?


Photo credit:

Javier Garcia/Unsplash

Civic Space Policy Paper 2022

Civic Space Needs Our Protection

Read more