How to Create an NGO

Some people work through the government to solve problems, and some people work outside of it. Nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs, are private groups dedicated to a cause. Their mission may be anything from preventing water contamination to ending torture around the world. With some thought and planning, you may be able to create an NGO that makes a difference.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

To create an NGO, define your mission, decide on a legal structure and figure out how you'll get funding. When you've answered those questions, you're ready to take legal steps to form an NGO.

Why Create an NGO?

There are literally millions of NGOs working in the United States and around the world. They range from global organizations to local groups that clean up litter around their neighborhood. If you're on fire with a cause, the first step is to ask what creating a new organization will do that existing ones won't.

  • Is there an NGO that already tackles the issue about which you're concerned? If so, what will you bring to the table that other NGOs don't?

  • Would it be more productive for your team to tackle the problem yourselves or to raise funds for established organizations working on the issue?

  • If you're helping people outside your own community — different race, different country, different town — how do they feel about your plans? Have you identified what they really need, or are you making assumptions?

  • Do you have hard facts or statistics to prove there's a need for your group? This can be important when you start asking for donations or support.

  • Do you have the skills to help with the issue? If, say, you want to get innocent people off death row, you need either a law license or some way to recruit lawyers to your cause.

  • Do you have the commitment and time to fight for the cause long term? If not, how will you keep your group going?

Think these questions through before you go further. There's no shortage of NGOs and NGO-supporting organizations that can give you advice on these topics. Put your ideas into a proposal for starting an NGO and get some feedback.

What Sort of Structure?

"NGO" is a very broad term. If you and your friends work together informally on local issues about which you care, you've managed to create an NGO. Groups like that often don't need any authorization or government approval.

To tackle bigger projects or to have a long-lasting effect, an NGO usually requires some sort of structure. Think about that as you draft your proposal for starting an NGO.

  • What are the legal requirements in the country or countries in which you'll operate? If you aren't sure of the law, find an attorney who will explain it.

  • What legal structure will you choose? In the U.S., the standard structure is a nonprofit organization, but this isn't mandatory. If you do decide to incorporate, you'll have to file as a nonprofit with your state government.

  • Do you want your NGO staff to work entirely on a volunteer basis, or will paying some of your people be necessary? Do you need consultants or freelancers for some jobs?

  • What sort of leadership will your group need? Do you want to be in charge, or would you rather find experienced leadership to form a board?

NGO vs. Nonprofit

NGO vs. nonprofit isn't really a conflict. You don't have to form a nonprofit corporation, but it's often a good way to secure donations. If you can register your corporation with the IRS as a charity to be able to receive tax-deductible donations, that's a valuable advantage.

Whether nonprofit or not, your proposal for starting an NGO should cover how you expect to pay for programs. Even if you're an all-volunteer force, you may need money for legal fees, supplies or office rent.

  • If you're going to run on donations, how will you go about it? Direct-mail requests? Applying for government grants?

  • Will you charge for services? If so, how much?

  • How will you account for money? A successful NGO needs to be above board; you have to show that donations go to the programs they're supposed to benefit.