Defining and Researching NGOs >> Defining an NGO

For the purposes of the DANGO project, our working definition of an NGO was the following:

"An NGO is non-violent organisation that is both independent of government and not serving an immediate economic interest, with at least some interest in having socio-political influence."

Essentially, we were aiming at the Third or Voluntary Sector, as distinct from the Private and Public/Governing Sectors. We were, however, going beyond that very broad category. The origin of the term NGO, still more common in the international sphere, was as a means of identification for those groups who would be awarded consultative status at the United Nations. Voice, consultation, influence: these have been characteristics of NGOs since the term was first conceived. NGOs belong to the third sector, yes, but they are not synonymous with it. Instead, they are its players, and that is why they should all be of such interest to socio-political historians.

With limited resources, we also needed to set ourselves priorities. As the aim of the DANGO project was to focus the attention of historical research towards the socio-political role played by NGOs, we prioritised the larger, more high-profile, and more influential bodies, and particularly those who seek to play a socially or politically influential role on the national and/or international stage. We also tried to avoid reinventing the wheel, and thus steered clear of organisations that had already attracted a great deal of historical attention, such as trade unions, or churches. This is not to say that we considered such organisations to be unimportant, but merely that they had not been as neglected by historians as other examples of voluntary association.

Therefore, in simple terms, we did not prioritise: major political parties; government departments and the public services; trade unions; the business world; purely recreational, cultural or research organisations; religious bodies (Church of England, Catholic Church); benevolent associations for specific trades/areas. Our policy is explained in greater detail below, in our Guidance Notes (see below) .

Guidance Notes:

Clearly, our definition of an NGO covers many thousands of organisations. Therefore the following is intended to offer some guidance about the organisations that we prioritised.

  1. In general terms, DANGO follows the approach that society can be conceptualised as three spheres: governmental; economic; voluntary. It is the third sphere in which we were particularly interested.
  2. Included in the first sphere were all government departments and agencies, be they local, national or international. Political parties presented an interesting case. The three major parties at Westminster were excluded from the database, on the grounds that these more properly belonged to the governmental sphere. Pressure groups that happen to contest elections, or do so not with the aim of winning power, but to publicise their cause (such as the Legalise Cannabis Alliance, or the Islamic Party of Britain), were included. Between these two extremes, priority was given to those parties that were more expressive than instrumental, but in practice, this group forms a low proportion of the bodies we looked at, and were considered on a case-by-case basis. A further interesting case was that of party groups that were not concerned with the running of the party itself, but rather with a wider social issue, such as Torche (Tory Campaign for Homosexual Equality). We tried to embrace as many of these groups as possible.
  3. Included in the economic sphere (and therefore excluded from our attention) were businesses (including social enterprises), industry bodies, producer groups, and professional bodies. It is debatable whether trade unions should have been considered part of this group, and it depended to a certain extent upon whether the group is defined as belonging to the economic sphere, or the private sector. Nevertheless, the labour movement had already attracted a great deal of historical attention, and so was not a priority for the project.
  4. Amongst the voluntary sector, we prioritised those who sought to play an influential role on the national and/or international stage. Purely recreational bodies were therefore not a priority, nor were purely cultural or learned institutions. Similarly, some organizations provided support to charities and NGOs, such as advice on IT or legal issues, whereas others provided training. Such groups, which can perhaps best be conceived as service providers to NGOs, were not a priority.
  5. Only national (UK, or England, Scotland, Wales; also Northern Ireland) bodies were prioritised, for practical reasons. Exceptions were made for those local bodies with a national profile, for example London homelessness charity Centrepoint.
  6. Similarly, those groups that had a highly specific focus, and lacked a wider agenda for national/international influence, such as benevolent bodies for particular trades or professions, were not prioritised.
  7. Religious history was a well-covered field (see for example the Mundus database), and as such not within DANGOs remit.  Religious bodies with a wider agenda (Christian Aid, CAFOD or Tearfund being obvious examples) were a priority, however.
  8. Support groups were included, for example for specific diseases.
  9. Campaigns and Coalitions: it could be difficult to tell the difference between formal, permanent organisations, which had an independent existence, and more transient campaigns, set up by a body for a particular, possibly short-term purpose. This was especially true when the ease with which websites can be set up was considered. As a rule of thumb, a formal coalition of individual groups, such as Make Poverty History in 2005 (in this example, it seemed sensible that the fact that MPH was so prominent made up for the fact that it was also transient), was treated as an organisation in its own right, whereas campaigns set up by a body to further one of its goals, for example the RSPCA's Freedom Food scheme, was not. Unfortunately, this meant some examples fell into a grey area, and the researcher's judgement as to whether they were treated as independent or subsidiary was applied.
  10. Unless it was clear that a group was not a priority for the project, as set out above, we endeavoured to record them on our database.
  11. We also included groups that no longer existed, and for which were were unable to locate archival details. This was so that at least a paper trail for subsequent researchers was provided.

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