Challenges to Comprehension Implied by the Logo
of Laetus in Praesens
Laetus in Praesens


International Non-governmental, Non-profit Organizations (NGOs)


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Section of Report of a Preliminary Investigation of the Possibility of Using Computer Data Processing Methods (1968): a summary of the various parts of this report, and details of its contents (with links to the various parts), are provided separately

Numbers and development
Proposed classification scheme
Meaning of 'NGO' to NGOs
Evaluation of NGOs

In the last section descriptions were given of the major types of organizations in the world system and their relationship to one another. In this section, more details are given on one particular type of organization, namely the international, non-governmental, non-profit organizations (NGO's).


International non-governmental organizations existed much before the creation of the first intergovernmental organization in 1815. The creation of the first international NGO is generally assumed to be in 1693. Until the creation of the United Nations in 1948, these organizations were not officially recognized in any way and were generally referred to as private international associations.

The United Nations Charter included a clause which provided for official 'consultative' relations between certain NGOs and the United Nations. This case lead to the first legal definition of these organizations.

They were defined as:

"Any international organization which is not established by inter-governmental agreement shall be considered as a non-governmental organization for the purpose of these arrangements". (UN Ecosoc Resolution 288 (X), 27 February 1950).

This definition has just been revised for the first time and now reads:

"...(as above)..., including organizations which accept members designated by governmental authorities, provided that such membership does not interfere with the free expression of use of the organization." (UK Ecosoc Resolution 1296 (XLIV), 25 June 1968).

International non-governmental organizations are normally called by their initials 'NGO' in United Nations circles. Various authors have suggested other names because of the confusion arising from the negative title. The title does not indicate precisely what is governmental or what is international (Stosic, B.D.,C1,p. 12-14). No other title has come to be generally accepted although a variety of terms are in use, as was shown in Exhibit 2. In the United States the term transnational non-governmental organization is increasingly used.

NGOs can be divided into two main groups depending on whether their objectives are profit oriented or not.  It is sometimes assumed that NGO means non-profit as well as non-governmental, but in fact the United Nations definition does not make a distinction between profit and nonprofit. Only non-profit NGOs will be considered here.


The group of NGOs which will be defined here is that which is included in the Yearbook of International Organizations (Union of International Associations).

These are defined as:

The key word that has to be defined is 'international'. The United Nations in defining its arrangements for consultation with NGOs, states merely that they should be of "recognized international standing". In the Tearbook, this is taken to be a minimum of three nationalities represented.

There is in fact a bilateral use of the adjective, applying to a body with members in only two countries.  There is no reason for insisting that there should be more than three countries represented. The essential point is that all members from the participating countries should have equitable voting rights.

Numbers and Development

The progressive increase in the number of NGOs, as defined above, is shown in Exhibit 12. This also shows a breakdown of the organizations by field of interest. An estimate is given of the possible increase in numbers in the foreseeable future in Exhibit 13.


No generally accepted classification of NGOs has yet been made. Many suggestions have been put forward (for a selection of references, see bibliography).

NGOs have been grouped on the basis of membership. Members can be:

NGOs have been grouped on the basis of their working methods:  ideological, scientific, general improvement of conditions (social, economic, technical)administration, professional interest, or understanding between peoples.

Classifications have been based on the purpose of NGOs.  One suggestion is:  ideological, protection of interests, or promotion of scientific technical or professional cooperation.

The terms used in the titles of NGOs are not in any way standardized and have little meaning for comparative purposes.  They include alliance, bureau, board, centre, committee, commission, confederation, conference, congress, council, federation, institute, league, movement, organization, society, and union.

The major efforts presently being made that are relevant to the classification of NGOs are the studies on local and national organizations in the United States. One recent study developed an empirical classification of organizations on the basis of 99 characteristics grouped into classes (including organizational goals, degree of formalization of authority structures, horizontal and vertical complexity, etc.).  (Haas, Eugene et al. C2 ). The techniques used have not yet been applied to international NGOs.

Proposed Classification Scheme

The current confusion of definitions and the variety of classification schemes in existence have lead to NGOs being badly defined as a class of organizations.  Very few of the classification schemes have been used on the existing organizations, so that knowledge of the similarities and differences between groups of NGOs has not increased. The danger of this is that any organizations dealing with NGOs are forced to make assumptions which are not based on an extensive analysis of the many types of NGOs. In order to illustrate this point, a detailed classification scheme is set out in Exhibit 14. This is made up of six main characteristics.

These are the objects (of the organizations, of its members, and possibly of their members), the structure of the organization in terms of its secretariat, the representativeness of the organization in terms of number of member nationalities, the other directedness in terms of its interest in other international organizations, the activities in terms of increasing independence of individual members, the sense of identity as an independent organization.

The classification scheme could be used to split the mass of 2,500 NGOs into groups with fairly predictable interest and attitudes. As an example, it would not be worth attempting to sell an expensive reference work on international organizations in general to an NGO whose objectives are protectionist, whose members objectives were increase in their own profits, whose secretariat was in the office of one national member, whose members were in three countries only, which indicated no interest in ether international organizations in its printed literature, which was only responsible for organizing an annual conference, and which only had part-time staff.

By isolating different groups of organizations it would be possible to determine which ones were likely to react to general programs under different conditions. This could considerably increase the effectiveness of attempts to get NGOs to collaborate on particular programs.  Time and funds would not be waited on making contacts which could not be developed.

Meaning of 'NGO' to NGOs

If such a classification scheme was used to group NGOs, a clearer idea of the range of bodies which are called NGOs would be obtained. The scheme would also bring out which organizations are unlikely to have any great sense of identity as an organization.  In such cases, for example, members might be so infrequently in contact and have so few resources, that the organization borders on the status of a 'letter-head' organization.

Even for these organizations which have a regular program of activities, many of them may prove to be too involved in their own domain to be able to register any interest in other organizations. This is important because the term NGO will then have little meaning for them. It will be a term that other organizations use when dealing with them but they will not necessarily consider themselves to be part of a group of NGOs. Alternatively, these organizations may be able to collaborate with other organizations but may not think of these other organizations as NGOs. For example, a group of organizations concerned loosely with the field of welfare may work together on certain programs. They may then consider that they are collaborating as welfare organizations but not necessarily as NGOs.

Finally, organizations may simply disagree on the definition NGO.  The Union of International Associations conducted a survey of NGOs in 1958 on their criteria for 'international'.  Of the 17 replies on this point, 2 required 20 countries, 7 required 10, 1 required 7-10, 1 required 7 and 1 required 5, 2 required a distinction between regional and world organizations for which they proposed respectively 5 and 10, and 3 and 8.

No systematic survey has been conducted on NGOs to determine the meaning of the term for each of them individually. It is therefore difficult to know how many organizations consider themselves to be NGOs and to have problems in common with other NGOs rather than with organizations interested in a particular subject. The only definite information os the number of such organizations which have some form of NGO consultative status with the United Nations or its Specialized Agencies. Even in this case it is not certain how many of these organizations accept consultative status for internal prestige reasons (i.e. as recognition by the United Nations), rather than as a member of a class of organizations supporting or collaborating with the United Nations.

The Yearbook of International Organizations (1966-67) listed 425 international NGOs with some form of direct consultative status with intergovernmental organizations.  Some of the intergovernmental organizations have different categories of consultative status. For example, Unesco has category A (consultation and association), B (information and consultation), and C (exchange of information). In July 1968, there were 26 A, 142 B and 105 C. The term NGO may have descreasing meaning for each organization from the A category through to the C category. Alternatively, the meaning of the term NGO may only be relevant to certain individuals within the organization, so that some C category organizations may have agreater understanding of the significance of the term than some A category organizations.

The previous section brought out the importance of informal organization and its intimate connection with formal organizations like NGOs.  Some NGOs may in fact consider themselves to be more involved with the informal social movements which they stimulate or as a result of which they were created, than with other organizations 'servicing' other informal movements.  Such NGOs can only be understood in terms of the social movements with which they are connected. The term NGO will then have little meaning unless the link with the other organizations of the class can be established in terms of their respective informal movements.  The informal movements 6f opinion may be considered of much greater importance than the organizations.  In which case any attempt at promoting the category NGO may appear completely artificial and valueless to such organizations.

The problem of the classification of NGOs is very important for any body which contacts these organizations as NGOs.  If these organizations consider that the classification is imposed on them and does not relate to their own classification of themselves and of the organizations with which they have to deal, they will tend to reject the status of NGO. This would make contact with them difficult.  It would be an advantage to know at what stage an NGO starts to become interested in other organizations in its field, other NGOs in general, consultative status, problems in common with other organizations with different objectives, etc.

Evaluation of NGOs.

Many NGOs are concerned with welfare, education or the pursuit of some idealistic objective. Much of their work is done on a voluntary basis. It is, therefore, difficult to suggest that their programs or the NGOs themselves should be evaluated. Many of these organizations consider that they are doing their utmost with limited financial resources. The introduction of management techniques which are used in prosperous business organizations is therefore resented.

There is another possible reason for opposition to evaluation.  Many NGOs members and executives may be connected with their organizations because they wish to be highly involved personally in an activity which supplies some form of personal satisfaction or fulfillment. This sort satisfaction may be difficult for them to obtain in highly structured administrations, as in corporations.  An evaluation therefore constitutes both an attempt to examine them personally and an attempt to change their organization to one in which personal participation is treated more objectively.

The need for evaluation, a qualitative and   quantitative evaluation of NGO, together with the problems encountered in evaluating NGOs, are discussed in Exhibit 15

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