Despite their diversity, it is important to distinguish between NGOs and not-for-profit agencies. Unlike
NGOs which tend to emerge specifically to address certain issues, offer specific services, or advance a cause, nonprofit groups may also include other organizations, such as museums, universities, and hospitals, service-based organizations that are not necessarily independent of government, or campaigning for a cause. An NGO should also not be mistaken for a social movement per se, despite the fact that it may perform an important functional role within such movements.
The term NGO also implies independence from government, which often enables NGOs to promote, or expose activities and events in ways the government cannot. NGOs, then, need to be resourced effectively. For instance, the budget of the American Association of Retired persons (AARP) in 1999, was over $540 million, and, in 2003, Human Rights Watch spent and received $21.7 million. As such, many NGOs rely heavily on membership funds, donations, fundraising, grants, and sponsorships to resource their activities. To some NGOs, it is important to maintain financial independence from government at all times. Greenpeace does not accept donations from governments or corporations, but relies on contributions from individual supporters and foundation grants. Nonetheless, many NGOs depend in part on government funding. For example, the British Government and the European Union (EU) donated a quarter of Oxfam's budget ($162 million) for famine relief in 1998. Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) operates with almost 50 percent of its budget coming from government sources.
NGOs also use a wide range of operational mechanisms to achieve their goals. For example, some NGOs will operate independently, while others will form alliances for mutual gain. While convention often constructs NGO activity as occurring in the form of picketing, protests, and demonstrations, many NGOs also focus on extension, education, or diplomatic work to achieve their aspirations. Many NGOs use the media to highlight and progress their campaign objectives. In many cases, an NGO will use a combination of these methods, when and as appropriate to meet their goals. NGO groups are also active on committees, meetings and in undertaking detailed studies that help inform and promote policy debate in different areas.
For example, in Australia, The Wilderness Society (TWS), a community-based environmental advocacy organization, uses many methods to campaign for the protection, promotion, and restoration of wilderness and natural processes across Australia. These include the use of Wilderness Action Groups, volunteering, policy development, political advocacy, committee work, election campaign work, letter-writing, postcard campaigns, protests and actions, and media work. Some NGOs, such as Greenpeace, employ spectacular and unilateral actions to get their message across. A good example is Greenpeace's call for a boycott of the Shell Oil Company, in order to pressure the company to halt its proposed dumping of an oil platform into the North Sea.
Many NGOs are important employers; in 1995, CONCERN worldwide, which is an international NGO campaigning against poverty, employed 174 expatriates and over 5,000 national staff across 10 developing countries in Africa, Asia, and Haiti. NGOs are also powerful players in the international policy arena. The UNCED (UN Conference on Environment and Development) meeting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (1992) is a good case in point. Over 22,000 representatives from over 9,000 NGOs of the developed north and the less-developed south gathered at this Earth Summit and in the parallel global forum as major contributors.
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