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Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are a diverse group of independent, not-for-profit entities that typically operate in the international arena with charitable, humanitarian or economic development goals. There is no single definition that qualifies an organization as an NGO. The distinguishing feature is its independence from governmental control. The lack of an official definition means that there are many different types of NGOs. They can be classified by scope of operations, such as global or regional, by focus, such as humanitarian or environmental, or operational format, such as participatory or executive.
Most people are familiar with the charitable and educational organizations that operate in their country. These are the entities that focus on mission-based work, rather than on generating profits. They raise money from public donations, grants, special events and program-related fees and activities. Each country has a different name for these organization. In the US, for example, charitable organizations are typically called nonprofits.
When an organization operates in the international arena, it is typically referred to as an NGO. This label does not have a precise definition, but is used to indicate those organizations that work inside of different countries for various purposes that benefit the common good but are not under the control of any government. This is an important point to distinguish, since many countries would object to an agent of a foreign government working on issues within its borders. It is not uncommon to have an organization referred to as a nonprofit when working locally in the US, for example, but referenced as an NGO when working in Africa.
The imprecision surrounding their definition means that there are many different ways to classify the types of NGOs. One of the easiest ways to type NGOs is by the scope of their operations.Operations can be global, region-specific or purpose-specific. Global NGOs operate in many different countries, while region-specific NGOs operate in one area of the world, for example, a peace and conflict organization that works in the region affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Purpose-specific NGOs fundraise for many different issues and typically distribute the funds raised to smaller, regional NGOs.
Another way to classify types of NGOs is to group them by the kind of work they do. These types of organizations usually focus on one of several programs areas. Typical categories include humanitarian aid, human rights and education. Other categories include the environment, women and children's issues, peace and conflict and economic development.
A final way to distinguish types of NGOs is by looking at their operational structure. A non-governmental organization can have an executive structure or a participatory structure. An organization with an executive structure operates based on mandates from the board of directors with implementation through executive officers. Participatory organizations are membership entities that operate by vote of the membership body.