What Google search cannot answer?

Posted On
Thursday, April 5, 2018


Shiv Kumar

Founder Director

What is an NGO? It is a Non-Governmental Organisation.

By stating what it is not, it does not explain what it is. In that sense, every private, public corporation, shop, club are all NGOs!

‘NGOs’ can be registered under the Trust Act, Society Registration Act or Company Registration Act; or a Section 8 Company or a Co-operative; or could be a voluntary organisation or a charitable institution providing free food or training. Some could even be informal associations like Self Help Groups. These categorisations are not mutually exclusive – you could be a Government Trust doing charitable activities or have board members from the Government; or it maybe an advocacy organisation, owned and funded by international organisations, or even a club!

Ownership is another level of confusion – most are owned by families, while others separate governance and operations more clearly, and some are owned by government (GONGO). Then there are International NGOs (INGOs), community owned (CBOs), donor organised NGOs (DONGO), and many more like QUANGO, TANGO, MANGO, VONGO etc. While some do brilliant and important work with the poor, others are large scale funding routes for legal or illegal, unstated objectives. Another term popular in some circles is ‘Civil Society’, which generally refers to entities outside of the state or government control, including family.

So, what is the problem with the above categorisation? When we hear that NGOs receive large sums of foreign funds, we think of some street children’s organisation receiving these monies – Nope. It is usually religious organisations, which are registered as Societies, which receive the largest foreign funding in India. In 2015-’16, faith based NGOs received the highest foreign funding, in India, the maximum up to the tune of INR 826 crore. The most profitable NGOs are schools and colleges, which register as Societies and Trust but have a variety of ways of income and expenditure, which mask the true nature of the enterprise. This leaves most people wondering what NGOs are, which adds to the existing suspicion and sometimes romance.

Let us upack this a bit more:

There are the different Acts of registration – Trust, Society, Section 8 and Co-operative

  1. Activities they carry out – service delivery, volunteers, advocacy etc., and those who undertake a combination of the above
  2. Revenue models – grants, fee for services, cross subsidies, donations, etc., or a mix of these
  3. Communities they serve – specific communities (like sex workers, farmers, migrants etc), or in a geographical area, or poor and marginalised in general
  4. Stated objectives – This gets tricky as most ‘NGOs’ would have a long list of activities. However, what they worked on in the past three years predominantly and what they intend working on in the next three years are more relevant. More important, it could be the sectors they work in – agriculture, water, health or a combination of the above.
  5. Ownership – Who owns it? Members themselves, like in a Cooperative or Government or multiple stakeholders or a family or ‘like minded people’
  6. Where it works – one city/block, one state, multi state, national, regional, international

It is high time we stopped calling a range of very different kinds of organisations as NGOs!

What could be the option?

We consider renaming, from ‘NGO’ sector to either of the following – these could be, as my colleague Arunabha suggested, ‘For Impact Organisations’ or they could be ‘Issue Focused Organisations’, ‘Social Development Organisations’ or ‘Community Profit Organisations’. Secondly, we have a code which indicates what this organisation does. For example, one of the organisation I founded, Vrutti, is registered as a Society, mostly into service delivery, and with grants as the main source of revenue. It largely serves small farmers, and works in Agriculture, Fisheries, Women entrepreneurship. Vrutti has a Professional Board, and works in several states. There could be a code that Vrutti carries, for example SGSFPMS, which captures the diversity of its work and communities it serves. This could change over time and therefore every year, this could be published as part of the Annual report.

How does this help? It helps that a temple is not confused with a club, an old age home is not confused with an extension organisation. It helps in transparency, communication, positioning and funding.

How can this be done? Given there is no single body, which represents this diversity of ‘NGOs’, best would be to build consensus with key stakeholders regionally and nationally to come up with guidelines that can be adopted, rather than imposed. This could be completely voluntary, keeping with the spirit of the sector.

I invite your views, suggestions and comments, particularly from those who will say – Nah, this has been tried before. Tell me what we learnt and how we can do this differently.


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What Google search cannot answer?

Swasti Health Catalyst founder Shiv Kumar unpacks the complexities of 'NGOs'.