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close this bookNGO Guidelines for Good Policy and Practice (Commonwealth Foundation)
close this folderPart I: NGOs: what they are and what they do
close this folder3. NGOs defined
View the document(introduction...)
View the document3.1 Diverse current ways of defining NGOs
View the document3.2 Defining ''NGO'' for the purposes of this report.
View the document3.3 Is ''NGO'' the right term?



This Chapter defines NGOs as organisations which possess four defining characteristics which enable them to be distinguished from other organisations in civil society: they are voluntary, independent, not-for-profit and not self-serving. Each of these characteristics is described.

3.1 Diverse current ways of defining NGOs

The research and consultations carried out in preparing this report revealed that there is wide variation in what the term "non-governmental organisation" or NGO means. The result is a great deal of confusion, and a considerable amount of misunderstanding.

Having only defined the term in broad outline thus far (see paragraph 1.7) this Chapter sets out a more complete definition.

Currently, two approaches to defining NGOs can be found, one broad and the other narrow.

The broad definition holds that every organisation in society which is not part of government, and which operates in civil society, is a non-governmental organisation. Thus this includes such organisations as political groups, labour and trade unions, religious bodies and institutions, guilds, sports clubs, arts and cultural societies, trade associations, chambers of commerce, professional associations, as well as small and large businesses. While the broad definition is based on semantic correctness, it is problematic because it embraces a huge number and variety of diverse organisations.

The narrow definition, derived from recent usage, refers to a specific type of organisation working in the field of development - one which works with people to help them improve their social and economic situation and prospects. This definition is also problematic, because it is both restrictive and broad. Because some take development to exclude welfare and also action on broad social, economic and environmental issues, it can be restrictive. Confusion abounds because there are many different approaches to what is broadly called development work, including some which are contradictory and others which are viewed by some as being the very antithesis of development.

The term is used, for example, by organisations as varied as the World Bank and small scale community-based organisations supporting economic projects for people adversely affected by the structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

Between the two ends of the spectrum the research and consultation that has informed this report has found many diverse definitions. This report offers a practical and workable definition which is based on the main distinctive characteristics of organisations which pursue the general goals stated at paragraph 1.7.

3.2 Defining ''NGO'' for the purposes of this report.

In this report, the term non-governmental organisation or NGO is taken to mean organisations which have all of the four key characteristics set out below .

1. Voluntary:

This means:

a. they are formed voluntarily: there is nothing in the legal, statutory framework of any country which requires them to be formed or prevents them from being formed; and

b. there will be an element of voluntary participation in the organisation: whether in the form of small numbers of board members or large numbers of members or beneficiaries giving their time voluntarily.

The word "voluntary" distinguishes NGOs operating in democratic societies from government - i.e. statutory - agencies. It thus has two meanings in the definition. Insofar as the formation of NGOs is concerned it means non-compulsory, or non statutory - i.e. formed voluntarily.

It also means that there is an element of unpaid voluntary work contributed to the organisation, most commonly by Board members not receiving payment for their work (see note 3 below), but also (and possibly on a large scale in some organisations) by voluntary, unpaid work performed by members and/or beneficiaries. It should be stressed, however, that it is wrong to assume or require that all NGOs are or should be characterised by being entirely or largely dependent on voluntary labour.

2. Independent:

Within the laws of society, they are controlled by those who have formed them, or by Boards of Management to which such people have delegated, or are required by law to delegate, responsibility for control and management.

The term "Board(s) of Management" is used as a general descriptive one. The constitutions of individual NGOs and/or the laws under which they register and function may use other terms, such as "Trustee(s)", "Director(s)", etc.

3. Not-for-profit:

They are not for personal private profit or gain, although:

a. NGOs may have employees, like other enterprises, who are paid for what they do. But in NGOs, the employers - Boards of Management - are not paid for the work they perform on Boards, beyond (most commonly) being reimbursed for expenses they incur in the course of performing their Board duties.

b. NGOs may engage in revenue-generating activities. They do not, however, distribute profits or surpluses to shareholders or members. They use revenues generated solely in pursuit of their aims.

Depending on the nature of the organisations, Boards may be selected or elected. Boards may also include, as voting members, paid employees of the organisation, usually in a minority, or co- opted to be in attendance without having voting rights. In such cases they are, like other
Board members, not paid for their attendance or work on Boards, but for their other duties.

4. Not self-serving in aims and related values:

The aims of NGOs are:

a. to improve the circumstances and prospects of disadvantaged people who are unable to realise their potential or achieve their full rights in society, through direct or indirect forms of action; and/or

b. to act on concerns and issues which are detrimental to the well-being, circumstances or prospects of people or society as a whole.

These aims give NGOs clear values and purposes which distinguish them from other organisations existing primarily to serve the interests of members or individuals.

The forms of action include self-help and people's organisations formed by or among disadvantaged people in order to help themselves and reduce inequalities between themselves and other sections of society.

The first three defining characteristics begin to suggest essential conditions which should be present in the environment in which NGOs function. Their existence should be enabled, permitted and encouraged but not required by law. The law should also allow them to function independently but nonetheless within the laws which apply to society as a whole. The law should be in terms that ensure that NGOs are not for the personal profit of those who direct their affairs.

As noted, a broad range and number of organisations, clubs and associations are found in democratic societies which have a wide variety of social, political, civil, sporting, religious, business, cultural and recreational purposes. Many of them satisfy the first three defining criteria set out. The fourth defining characteristic concerns the aims and values, and thus generally defines the particular types of NGOs with which this report is concerned: organisations which are not serving the self-interests of members, but are concerned in one way or another with disadvantage and/or the disadvantaged, or with concerns and issues which are detrimental to the well-being, circumstances or prospects of people or society as a whole.

This is not to imply that the vast range and number of groups which operate outside government, in civil society, but which do not possess the fourth defining characteristic have no value or right to exist. Far from it. Nor is the definition created by the four characteristics watertight in that it clearly separates NGOs from other organisations operating in civil society. Many organisations engage in some activities which are comparable to those which wholly characterise NGOs.

This matter is discussed further at paragraph 5.11, and in Chapter 7 but here it can be noted that the fourth defining characteristic is of central importance, both to defining NGOs, and to understanding their activities, which are described in the following chapter.

3.3 Is ''NGO'' the right term?

There is sometimes an uneasiness about the use of the term NGO. It is a negative term, defining organisations by what they are not, rather than by what they are. In some countries non-governmental is taken to imply anti-governmental. Some people therefore prefer the use of terms such as voluntary organisation, private voluntary organisation, or the American terms non-profit organisation or not-for-profit organisation.