#LBQA: How do I start a non-governmental organization?

The Question

I’ve been working for an amazing international nonprofit organization for 7 years now, doing what I love almost every day. I work with children in war-torn areas, assisting with the coordination of different relief programs. The truth is, I want to start a nonprofit organization of my own, offering similar services, however, straying far from red tape and other government obstacles set in place that seem to prevent more efficient and effective relief and aid programs. There are so many great nonprofit organizations around the world who do similar work, but unless you have NGO status, it becomes very difficult to even secure invitations from countries to come in and help. What advice can you share on starting a non governmental organization, expanding it to a truly borderless organization, and creating channels to be of service to those around the world in such vulnerable situations?
— Susan, New York City

The Answer

Anyone with a hammer and a shovel can start an international non-governmental organization, but you'll need more than just good intentions to make it work. Many people who start up non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in developing countries think money and enthusiasm are all it takes to combat the issues that come with poverty. But problems like hunger, illiteracy and child labor are complex and deep-rooted, and the effort to address them brings with it a whole other set of challenges.

Ngo.org defines a non-governmental organization as follows:

A non-governmental organization (NGO) is any non-profit, voluntary citizens' group which is organized on a local, national or international level. Task-oriented and driven by people with a common interest, NGOs perform a variety of service and humanitarian functions, bring citizen concerns to Governments, advocate and monitor policies and encourage political particpation through provision of information. Some are organized around specific issues, such as human rights, environment or health. They provide analysis and expertise, serve as early warning mechanisms and help monitor and implement international agreements. Their relationship with offices and agencies of the United Nations system differs depending on their goals, their venue and the mandate of a particular institution.

The steps you need to follow to actually establish your NGO vary from country to country. In some developed countries the process of creating and NGO has become increasingly streamlined over the years whilst there are a number of established bodies and organizations who will be able to support you. In other countries, just becoming a legally registered charitable organization can be difficult and you may need to pay for legal support.

Here are three tips.

  1. Research: If you’re already at the stage where you are considering setting you an NGO it is quite likely that you already know what it is you want to do and where you want to do it. But before you go too far down that line and start working out what your mission and goals are it is crucial that you first evaluate the environment you plan on operating in. You need to discover what organizations are already working in your proposed field and location. If you want your new NGO to really make a difference there is little point in duplicating the work of other more established organizations who are likely to know more and have greater experience of the situation. You will also struggle to gain public support for your work if they are already familiar with a successful NGO doing very similar work.
  2. Philosophy: At this stage you should already have a reasonable understanding for what you want to do, who you plan to support and how you will do it. Now you just need to distill the concepts you have into your head into a clear structure on paper that you can share with your contacts. What is your mission? Every charity and NGO has one. It serves to guide you as well as informing others, whether they be potential beneficiaries, donors or partners, exactly what it is your organization was established to do. It should be simple, short and easily understandable whilst capturing the essence of the problem you want to solve.
  3. Funding: The next step is to decide how you plan to fund your NGO and related services. Fundraising is an ongoing concern for almost all charitable organization’s, even massive international organisations need to continue fundraising to deliver their services. There are an abundance of different ways that you can fund your organization, from grants, member subscriptions, trading, major donors and individual giving being the most common forms. It is important to study how similar organizations and other NGOs working in your chosen location raise their funds. If it isn’t clear from their website or other materials then just ask. NGOs are expected to be transparent about where their funding comes from and most will be open with you about how they raise their funds. Most organizations will maintain a fundraising mix of different income streams that may change over the years depending on their environment.