What Is a Non-Governmental Organization?
last updated August 31, 2003

Nongovernmental organizations, or "NGOs," play vital roles in articulating and enforcing international human rights standards. NGOs lobby on national and international levels for strengthened human rights standards and document and publicize violations of these standards. As advocates for social change, NGOs have been instrumental in achieving legal reform and have played important roles in advancing women's rights as human rights. Particularly in CEE/FSU, NGOs are helping to fill gaps in the provision of social services that have been neglected in the wake of political and economic reforms and are serving as liaisons between citizens and governments.

Despite their diversity, NGOs can be broadly defined as "independent voluntary association[s] of people acting together on a continuous basis, for some common purpose, other than achieving government office, making money or illegal activities." From Peter Willetts, What is a Non-Governmental Organization? (2002). As the World Bank has explained, NGOs

include many groups and institutions that are entirely or largely independent of government and that have primarily humanitarian or cooperative rather than commercial objectives. They are private agencies in industrial countries that support international development; indigenous groups organized regionally or nationally; and member-groups in villages. NGOs include charitable and religious associations that mobilize private funds for development, distribute food and family planning services and promote community organization. They also include independent cooperatives, community associations, water-user societies, women's groups and pastoral [animal husbandry] associations. Citizen groups that raise awareness and influence policy are also NGOs.

From Olena P. Maslyukivska, Role of Nongovernmental Organizations in Development Cooperation (1999) (quoting the World Bank).

The International Center for Non-Profit Law (ICNL), in its Handbook on Good Practices for Laws Relating to Non-Governmental Organizations, emphasizes that NGOs often rely in whole or in part on volunteer contributions of time and financial support. In contrast with government-organized NGOs, called "GONGS," NGOs operate independently of the government and, while they often advocate for particular policies or legislation, they are not political parties.

According to the ICNL's Handbook, NGOs may be either "public benefit" or "mutual benefit" organizations. Public benefit NGOs work "for the benefit of the public or some segment thereof." Mutual benefit NGOs, on the other hand, act "primarily for the mutual benefit of a defined group of individuals (often the members of a membership organization)." While public benefit NGOs can often receive greater governmental benefits, such as tax-exemptions, they are often also subject to greater regulation. From Handbook on Good Practices Relating to Non-Governmental Organizations.