There are more than 1.5 million non-governmental organizations in the United States. These organizations play a key role in American civil society and public policy formation. Non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, are mission-driven or public service focused nonprofit organizations. NGOs range in size from small organizations with narrow scopes of work, like a neighborhood food pantry, to large, multinational organizations. They influence the public policy space in a variety of ways. Some conduct and publish research that policymakers use to develop new legislation. Others are advocacy organizations that work to influence public opinion, organize legislative campaigns, and support the passage of legislation aligned with their mission and vision. Through a variety of diverse tactics, NGOs play a critical role in policy formation and change in the U.S. 

NGOs are private organizations that operate outside of government yet influence the public sector and civil society. Defining what an NGO is can be tricky. There is incredible diversity among them, and they work on a wide range of issues. The term was first used in the 1940s after the end of World War II to differentiate between private organizations and intergovernmental agencies. Often, it’s still associated with internationalism and work at a global-scale. For many, an NGO is a large international organization or relief agency. Examples of such organizations include Amnesty International, Oxfam, and Doctors Without Borders. Technically, however, they need not operate at the international level. An NGO is simply a private organization that works to influence civil society and advocate for their mission, vision, and values. 

NGOs vs. Nonprofits

Almost all NGOs are nonprofits, but not all nonprofits are NGOs. In the United States, nonprofits are organizations not designed to generate profit beyond what is needed to pay staff and fund their programs. Nonprofits operate without public shareholders or stocks and are tax exempt with a structure laid out in the U.S. tax code. On the other hand, NGOs usually operate as 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) nonprofits in the U.S. and do not pay taxes. 

Nonprofit and NGO are not synonymous. There are organizations with nonprofit status that do not have the civil society mission that characterizes NGOs. Churches, for example, are nonprofit organizations, but most would not consider themselves NGOs. Still, these terms are often used interchangeably, particularly by people who do not work within the sector. 

Types of NGOs

The NGO sector is large and diverse. There are many different subtypes, which vary based on the NGO’s mission, theory of change, and tactics. The four main types are advocacy, service-based, research, and operational. 

Advocacy

Advocacy NGOs work to change public opinion and influence policy. They design and execute public awareness campaigns, lobby public officials to pass legislation, and more. Often, they employ organizers who work to build political power among their communities. They often have a strong lobbying component. Advocacy NGOs may be more overtly political or partisan than other types. 

Service-Based

Service-based NGOs realize their mission through direct service and boots on the ground. These organizations organize relief projects and provide essential services to people in need. Often, they are less involved in the public policy space and do not engage in lobbying. Some of the largest and most famous global NGOs are service based. This includes Doctors Without Borders and World Central Kitchen.

Research

Research NGOs are often called think-tanks in the United States. These organizations work to affect change via information. They conduct and publish research, write policy briefs, and educate key decision makers and the public. Sometimes research NGOs even draft legislation. These organizations serve an important role in civil society and often employ key subject matter experts. 

Operational

Since they are also focused on direct services, operational NGOs have much in common with service-based NGOs. They design and implement development projects. They often work to promote economic and sustainable development in lower-income nations. Typically, Operational NGOs are global in scope and work in concert with the United Nations, the World Bank, and other major development organizations. 

Examples of NGOs

Many NGOs have operated globally for decades and are household names. This includes Oxfam International, the International Rescue Committee, Doctors Without Borders, and Amnesty International.

Save the Children, for example, was founded in 1917. It works to improve the lives of children through healthcare, emergency aid, and education projects. They have a global presence in 121 countries and serve tens of millions of children each year. 

The International Rescue Committee was founded in 1933. It provides humanitarian assistance to refugees fleeing crises like war and natural disasters. The IRC was founded to help people fleeing Nazi Germany in Europe. Today, they have a global presence in 40 countries. In 2021, they reached over 30 million people with services ranging from primary healthcare to direct cash assistance. 

How Do NGOs Operate in the United States?

Legal frameworks govern the establishment and operation of NGOs. Importantly, the U.S. legal system protects the free speech and association rights of NGOs. Regulations that impact these groups are designed to regulate without making judgments about the content or value of the work. 

NGOs are typically tax-exempt in the U.S. because they can incorporate as 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations. Service-based, operational, and research NGOs are often 501(c)(3) organizations, while advocacy NGOs are more often 501(c)(4) organizations. Federal law prohibits 501(c)(3) organizations from endorsing candidates for office or engaging in partisan activities. 501(c)(4) organizations have more flexibility to engage in political activity, lobbying, and electioneering. 

Foreign NGOs, or those primarily based abroad, are also allowed to operate in the United States. They are generally regulated in the same manner as domestic organizations. These foreign-based organizations must obtain a license to operate in the states where they work. They may also apply for tax-exempt status from the IRS like any U.S. nonprofit. There are no special restrictions on foreign donations or contributions. 

The United States does have a Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires some representatives of foreign governments or entities to register with the Justice Department and periodically disclose their activities. This typically only applies to foreign agents working in U.S. politics and elections. Most NGO employees are not required to register with the Justice Department. 

The Role of NGOs

The size and scope of the nonprofit sector has been increasing steadily over the past several decades. Already, the nonprofit sector employs 10% of all private sector workers in the U.S. It also comprises 5.6% of domestic GDP. The nonprofit sector is a massive industry in which NGOs play a critical role. NGOs have significant power and influence. They seem poised to increase their influence and scope moving forward. Given their significant impact, understanding their role and function is critical to understanding American civic life.  

Service-based and organizational NGOs help to fill gaps in government services, providing essential assistance to poor and marginalized people. They provide healthcare, education, and emergency relief to communities that need support above and beyond what public services and government funding can provide. Many of these organizations are small and have deep community ties. They operate local food pantries, provide affordable childcare, deliver mental health services, and much more to families who could not otherwise access these services. 

Advocacy and research NGOs focus less on filling service gaps. Instead, they bolster American democratic and civic institutions. Think tanks produce social policy research that pushes U.S. public policy forward, bringing new ideas and solutions. The public sector does not always have the time, resources, or political will to undertake long research projects or investigate novel but unproven ideas. Think tanks often have more resources and flexibility. 

Advocacy organizations strengthen democratic institutions and bring people into the electoral process. They organize communities around big policy ideas and provide professional support and expertise to grassroots campaigns. Many advocacy NGOs are nonpartisan. They focus on increasing democratic education, political participation, and voting. In an era where voting rights are under attack, this work is more important than ever. 

How Do NGOs Influence Public Policy?

NGOs wield substantial influence on United States public policy. They engage in advocacy and lobbying efforts, leveraging research findings to present evidence-based arguments to policymakers. Their comprehensive reports and recommendations inform legislative discourse and decision-making. 

Coalition building is another key tool. Organizations form alliances with diverse stakeholders, including other NGOs, businesses, and community groups. Doing so amplifies their voices and garners broader support for their policy objectives. At the same time, they also invest in public education campaigns. They deploy resources to raise awareness among the populace about pressing issues. These campaigns generate public pressure that can sway policymakers.

Further, some NGOs use litigation as a strategic tool, challenging government actions or policies in the courts. Litigation often influences the interpretation and implementation of legislation. Moreover, strategic partnerships with government agencies afford NGOs opportunities to directly influence policy implementation and programmatic direction.

In select instances, NGOs employ direct action tactics to spotlight their cause and exert immediate pressure on legislators. This can include actions such as protests and civil disobedience.

These multifaceted approaches allow NGOs to wield considerable influence over the legislative process. Through these approaches, they shape the formulation, passage, and implementation of laws that reflect their policy priorities and societal goals.

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