Defining and Researching NGOs >> Defining an NGO >> Further Definitions of an NGO

NGOs | Charities | Social Movements | Others


*United Nations

A non-governmental organization (NGO) is a not-for-profit, voluntary citizens' group, which is organized on a local, national or international level to address issues in support of the public good. Task-oriented and made up of people with common interests, NGOs perform a variety of services and humanitarian functions, bring citizens' concerns to governments, monitor policy and programme implementation, and encourage participation of civil society stakeholders at the community level. They provide analysis and expertise, serve as early warning mechanisms, and help monitor and implement international agreements. Some are organized around specific issues, such as human rights, the environment or health. Their relationship with offices and agencies of the United Nations (UN) system differs depending on their location and their mandate.

*UN Economic & Social Council

'any organisation that is not established by an agreement among governments is an international non-governmental organisation.' (A. Iriye Global Community: The Role of International Organizations in the Making of the Contemporary World University of California Press 2002 p2)

*Akira Iriye

'a voluntary, nonstate, nonprofit, nonreligious and nonmilitary association. The voluntary nature of these organizations – that is, their openness to all those who wish to join – distinguishes them from others that are restricted to certain categories of people, whether nationality, gender, religion, class, region, or any other division.' (as above)

World Bank

'private organisations that pursue activities to relieve suffering, promote the interests of the poor, protect the environment, provide basic social services, or undertake community development.'

*European Commission (Discussion Paper - acrobat pdf document)

'The NGO-sector has often been described as extremely diverse, heterogeneous and populated by organisations with hugely varied goals, structure and motivations. It is therefore not an easy task to find a common definition of the term "non-governmental organisation". It cannot be based on a legal definition given the wide variations in laws relating to NGO activities, according to which an NGO may have, for instance, the legal status of a charity, non-profit association or a foundation. The term "NGO" can nevertheless be used as shorthand to refer to a range of organisations that normally share the following characteristics: NGOs are not created to generate personal profit. Although they may have paid employees and engage in revenue-generating activities they do not distribute profits or surpluses to members or management; NGOs are voluntary. This means that they are formed voluntarily and that there is usually an element of voluntary participation in the organisation; NGOs are distinguished from informal or ad hoc groups by having some degree of formal or institutional existence. Usually, NGOs have formal statutes or other governing document setting out their mission, objectives and scope. They are accountable to their members and donors; NGOs are independent, in particular of government and other public authorities and of political parties or commercial organisations; NGOs are not self-serving in aims and related values. Their aim is to act in the public arena at large, on concerns and issues related to the well being of people, specific groups of people or society as a whole. They are not pursuing the commercial or professional interests of their members.

*Encyclopædias' definitions:

  1. Encyclopædias Britannica
  2. Wikipedia

*Prof. Peter Willets

'an independent voluntary association of people acting together on a continuous basis, for some common purpose, other than achieving government office, making money or illegal activities.'

More broadly, Willets sees NGOs as part of a (liberally defined) politico-democratic process, insofar as they engage in national and international dialogues on social direction or, as he puts it, 'a social expression of values'.

(Peter Willets 'What is an NGO' pp4-5, 17-19)

*John Hopkins Comparative Non-Profit Sector project

The UK-oriented work of the John Hopkins project offers the term 'narrow voluntary sector', formal organisations independent of the state, but removing businesses and unions, religious and purely recreational bodies.

(Kendall, J & Almond, S 'United Kingdom' in Global Civil Society, Dimensions of the Nonprofit Sector, Vol. I (1999) p180. Full chapter here:


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* 2006 Charities Act (Part 1, Section 2, Subsection 2(a)-(l) - view online)

(Summary): For the purposes of the law of England and Wales, "charity" means an institution which is established for charitable purposes only. A charitable purpose is a purpose which is for the public benefit and works:

(a) the prevention or relief of poverty;
(b) the advancement of education;
(c) the advancement of religion;
(d) the advancement of health or the saving of lives;
(e) the advancement of citizenship or community development;
(f) the advancement of the arts, culture, heritage or science;
(g) the advancement of amateur sport;
(h) the advancement of human rights, conflict resolution or reconciliation or the promotion of religious or racial harmony or equality and diversity;
(i) the advancement of environmental protection or improvement;
(j) the relief of those in need by reason of youth, age, ill-health, disability, financial hardship or other disadvantage;
(k) the advancement of animal welfare;
(l) the promotion of the efficiency of the armed forces of the Crown, or of the efficiency of the police, fire and rescue services or ambulance services;
(m) any other purposes within subsection (4) (view online).

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Social Movements

* Donatella Della Porta & Mario Diani Social Movements: An Introduction (2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell 2006 pp.20-21)
Social Movements can be conceptualised as having three characteristics:

  1. "are involved in conflictual relations with clearly defined opponents"
  2. "are linked by dense informal networks"
  3. "share a distinct collective identity"

* Paul Byrne Social Movements in Britain (Abingdon: Routledge 1997 p13)
"Social movements are like political parties, in that their adherents share a common outlook on what should and should not be happening in society, they differ from political parties, however, in that their adherents are motivated by expressive as well [sic] instrumental considerations; indeed, some theorists argue that expressive politics lies at the heart of social movements."

* Sidney Tarrow Power In Movement: Social Movements and Contentious Politics (2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1998 p2)
"Contentious politics occurs when ordinary people, often in league with more influential citizens, join forces in confrontations with elites, authorities, and opponents. Such confrontations go back to the dawn of history. But mounting, coordinating, and sustaining them against powerful opponents are the unique contribution of the social movement, an invention of the modern age and an accompaniment to the rise of the modern state. I argue in this book that contentious politics is triggered when changing political opportunities and constraints create opportunities for social actors who lack resources on their own. They contend through known repertoires of contention and expand them by creating innovations at their margins. When back by dense social networks and galvanized by culturally resonant, action-oriented symbols, contentious politics leads to sustained interaction with opponents. The result is the social movement."

* Charles Tilly From Mobilization to Revolution New York: Random House 1978 pp9-10

(Within the context of a proposal that collective action arises in the overlap between populations, beliefs and actions)

"The notion of a 'movement' is more complicated than the ideas of groups and events. By a social movement we often mean a group of people identified by their attachment to some particular set of beliefs. In that case, the population in question can change drastically, but so long as some group of people is still working with the same beliefs, we consider the movement to survive. Thus the Women's Movement survives major changes in composition and internal organization. But the movement also commonly means action. People writing histories of the women's movement are quite likely to include past heroines who were quite different in beliefs and personal characteristics from current activists, just so long as their actions were similar or had similar effects. The fact that population, belief, and action do not always change together causes serious problems for students of social movements. When they diverge, should we follow the beliefs, whatever populations and actions they become associated with? Should we follow the population, whatever beliefs and actions it adopts? Should we follow the action, regardless of who does it and with what ideas?"


NCVO membership criteria:

To be eligible for membership of NCVO an organisation must meet the following criteria:

  1. It must be a self-governing body of people who have joined together voluntarily to take action for the benefit of the community, and established otherwise than for financial gain.
  2. While it does not have to be a registered charity, the aims, objectives and methods of working of your organisation must be written down in a publicly available document.  Your organisation should be open to all members of the community with interests relevant to your publicly stated aims.  You should have a stated policy in existence on equal opportunities, or have a commitment to improved practice.  We may need to ask you for information about your financial situation and how long you have been operating.
  3. It must be based in England.  If your organisation operates across the UK, your headquarters must be based in England.
  4. It should be properly constituted and its existence should not be time limited for a particular purpose.
  5. Organisations undertaking and/or affiliated to party political activity are not eligible for membership.


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