Nongovernmental organizations are hard to define due to the inconsistent use of the term. Nonprofit organizations and private voluntary organizations are the types of organization that are labelled as a nongovernmental organization, although they do not fit squarely within this label. The United Nations defined the nongovernmental organization as one that does not form part of a government and is also not a conventional profit business. Some nongovernmental organizations are funded by governments and maintain their nongovernmental status by not allowing government representatives to be members of the organization. Due to the vague definition of a nongovernmental organization it is normally given to those organizations that have a wider social aim with some political facets, but are not political themselves. In some judicial situations, nongovernmental organizations are also termed "civil society organizations." Nongovernmental organizations are normally referred to as NGOs for short.
NGOs date back to the 19th century though there is some debate as to what was the first NGO; this debate is not made easier by the varied definitions for what is an NGO. However, it is generally agreed that by the end of the 19th century there relatively few NGOs. These early NGOs were engaged in a wide range of activities covering such diverse areas of action such as treatment of offenders, trafficking of women and children, the slave trade, the drug trade, peace and humanitarian assistance. One of the earliest of these NGOs was the Red Cross which was founded in 1859 by Henri Durant. The growth of NGOs started at this point in history due to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the end of subsistence farming, the move to the city and therefore the beginning of the era when people began to care about social issues and living conditions for the masses. Logistically it was also easier for international NGOs to communicate due to advances in communication including the invention of the model postal service.
The end of World War I led to a new era for the NGO. Between the years 1915 and 1919, 51 new international NGOs were set up -- most of them, in all probability, after the end of the conflict. Also at this time trade unions and chambers of commerce, which had previously had informal relations with their international colleagues decided to start working together, and this led to the formation of the International Federation of Trade Unions and the International Chamber of Commerce as two formidable non-governmental organizations. Also at this time individuals were working toward noble causes such as peace and reconciliation after the war. The Save the Children International Union was formed in 1920 to reduce duplication in efforts to care for starving children in Europe and the Near East. At this time the International Federation of League of Nations Societies was established to help the work of the fledgling League of Nations –- the precursor to the United Nations. By the beginning of World War II it is estimated that there were about 700 NGOs in operation.
There are many different types of NGOs and they are split into two different groups by the World Bank. The first group is known as Operational NGOs which try to make small changes in society through projects. They do this by creating localized programs in the field and using volunteers and funds to make it happen. They raise money by applying to governments for grants. They normally have a central office staffed by professionals who plan the projects and then the projects in the field are run by some professional field workers but also volunteers. The main areas of activity that operational NGOs are involved in are services and welfare, environmental issues and emergency relief.
Advocacy NGOs try to make social change by influencing the political system to make changes from the top down. They are normally staffed by professionals whose job it is to keep supporters informed and motivated as to the current campaigns. They are also responsible for mobilizing media support for current issues. Advocacy NGOs are normally concerned with promoting issues regarding human rights, women's rights or children's rights. It is possible for a nongovernmental organization to be both and use both techniques to make change in the world.