Understanding the NGO Sector


According to the Candid Learning, NGOs have no universal definition but are usually described as organisations, working to promote social change, independent from government and political parties. They are nonprofit making and non-violent.

The NGO category is often given to bodies functioning on an international level although this varies from country to country.

Professor Peter Willetts, City University, London ( What is a Non-Governmental Organization?), defines an NGO as an independent voluntary association of people acting together on a continuous basis, for some common purpose, other than achieving government office, making money or illegal activities


According to NCVO, Charities are organisations set up for charitable purposes and operating only for public benefit, not to make profit. They must provide a benefit to all or a significant part of the population, within one of the charitable categories, e.g. relieving food insecurity.

The assets of a charity can only be used to further its cause and a charity will not have owners/shareholders who profit from it. Charities must be governed by a group of trustees who are nearly always volunteers.

Other organisations can be said to hold charitable status for example museums, universities or housing associations.

Not for profits (NP)

These may include community benefit societies, social enterprises, non-charitable housing associations, co-operatives and community interest companies that benefit a community, but reinvest their profits for this purpose.

Voluntary organisations (VO)

According to Reach Volunteering , Voluntary Organisations are formed by a group of individuals (usually volunteers) who make an agreement and form a group independent of government or state, to achieve something. There are no private shareholders, but strategy and focus are decided by an independent board.

Examples include sports societies or youth clubs.

VOs rely on the work of volunteers rather than paid staff and make decisions collaboratively (often by committee), a process which can be very slow.

Types of NGOs

Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can be classified in 2 broad groups.

Operational NGOs

- These NGOs plan, design and implement projects or emergency response activities, for instance the NGO “Doctors without Borders” establishes and operates temporary hospitals in conflict zones.

Advocacy NGOs

- These NGOs mobilise support to change behaviours or policies on issues including women’s rights, human trafficking, climate change and human rights. For example, Greenpeace organises online petitions, protest marches and media stunts highlighting to politicians the dangers of climate change.

It is important to note that many NGOs carry out both operational and advocacy work.

Further classifications can be made as follows:

  • NGOs can be local - Community Based Organisations (CBO) - national or international. Local NGOs can be highly effective in bringing about behavioural change because they are rooted in the community.
  • International NGOs (INGOs) have a wider reach and operate in multiple countries which enables them to share resources, knowledge and best practice.
  • Environmental NGOs (ENGOs), whether operational or advocacy, focus their work on issues such as tackling climate change, slowing deforestation, reducing carbon emissions, conserving endangered species habitat or reducing single use plastic. Environmental NGOs include Greenpeace, World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Surfers Against Sewage and The Marine Conservation Society.
  • The term BINGO refers to Big or Business friendly NGOs which have a focus on building links with business to help fund and amplify their work, for example the Red Cross.
  • Religious INGOs (RINGOs), both operational and advocacy types, are NGOs with a faith background or a faith focus. Many of these groups stress that faith is their underlying motivator, but their daily work is serving people of all faiths and none. RINGOs include Muslim Aid, CAFOD, Muslim Hands, Christian Aid, Tearfund, World Vision or MAF.

NGO activities and roles

NGO activities are wide ranging and many operate in multiple areas. Their role may include providing, supporting or advocating for social, economic and environmental services. NGOs aim to provide temporary extra resource whilst building capacity in local communities and governments to enable the beneficiary to provide these services for themselves. They often work to tackle discrimination, promote human rights and reduce poverty. Activities can include:


Also known as disaster relief or emergency response. NGOs operating in this space have a charitable or “service” orientation, a short to medium term focus and are often referred to as “aid agencies”.


Also known as rehabilitation or recovery. NGOs operating in this space have a long term plan and vision for supporting communities to improve their standards of living


Consulting with and prioritising the needs of the community. NGOs who use this approach start with a needs assessment activity to listen to the community before planning their project activities and take a medium to long term approach.


Enabling communities to learn about financial, social or political issues impacting them and then facilitating solutions from within the community to improve standards of living and quality of life. NGOs operating in this space know this work develops slowly and have a long term plan.

NGO activities in social services

NGOs provide, support or advocate for a wide range of social services including:

  • Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH): projects work to ensure that communities have access to clean water and toilets, for example installing a hand-dug well or drilling a borehole. NGO Careers in WASH include Water Engineer, Project Manager, Hygiene Promotion specialist
  • Health activities: focus on facilitating access to basic healthcare for all, for example running a vaccination campaign in a refugee camp. NGO Careers in Health include Midwife, Doctor, Nurse, Psychologist, Nutritionist
  • Shelter and construction: projects work to provide adequate housing and access roads for communities, particularly after natural disasters such as earthquakes or hurricanes, for example supplying tarpaulin to enable people to create a basic shelter immediately after a disaster until a longer term solution can be put in place. NGO Careers in Shelter include Civil Engineer, Construction Worker, Carpenter
  • Human trafficking: a growing area of concern for NGOs, who tackle the issue through identifying victims of trafficking, education of vulnerable communities, research, training, liaison with authorities, supporting victims through the criminal justice system and facilitating those affected to find safe accommodation
  • Education: activities seek to ensure that all children have access to a basic education, in order to improve their life chances. An NGO might for example address discrimination by providing specialist teacher training to improve provision of education for children with special education needs. NGO Careers in education include Teacher, Trainer, Education policy adviser
  • Human rights: NGOs focus on the protection of civil and political rights. They are active in challenging discrimination on a wide range of issues including racism, gender and religion. NGO Careers in Human Rights may include working for organisations such as Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch
  • Disaster preparedness: projects help communities become more resilient and better prepared for future challenges, for example setting up early earning systems for area of frequent flooding or tsunami. NGO Careers in Disaster preparedness may include Project Manager or Community Mobiliser

NGO activities in economic services

NGOs provide, support or advocate for a wide range of economic services, helping to level the playing field and reduce discrimination. Activities include:

  • Microfinance: projects match up a donor with a specific beneficiary who needs a small start-up investment, for example to enable an entrepreneur to buy an oven and start a small business selling bread
  • Community savings: projects enable communities to pool their resources and take it in turns to access the money in times of need, for example an NGO might provide a lockable savings box, 3 keys and a notebook which enables a small committee to manage the savings.
  • Advice and Training: provided by some NGOs on economic activities including bookkeeping, marketing and product design
  • Economic advocacy: a focus area for some NGOs, for example promoting citizen participation by facilitating rural communities to lobby for centralised budgets to be more fairly distributed to rural areas
  • Livelihood development: projects support communities to develop new or diverse income strands to help them become more resilient, for example setting up beehive projects where community members go on to produce and sell honey
  • Women’s rights: projects support economic inclusion of women, for example women’s only savings groups or lobbying for equal land rights

NGO jobs in economic services may include Policy adviser, Women’s rights worker, Project manager, Trainer, Community organiser, Human rights advocate

NGO activities in environmental services

NGOs provide, support or advocate for a wide range of environmental services including:

  • Awareness raising: bringing to the attention of the general public and politicians environmental issues including water quality, climate change, deforestation, carbon emissions, habitat destruction and plastic waste
  • Campaigning: designing, planning and implementing time bound campaigns to bring about a change in behaviour and policy, for example the UK Net Zero campaign which invited supporters to write to their MP, sign a petition and attend a rally in Westminster calling for the government to commit to achieving net zero greenhouse emissions by 2050
  • Lobbying: direct engagement with government policy makers to supply information and influence policy decisions, for example calling for more bicycle lanes to be created, encouraging people to feel safe cycling and reducing pollution caused by cars
  • Implementation of environmental services, for example tree planting or habitat management

NGO jobs in environmental services may include Campaign Manager, Researcher, Climate change advocate, Countryside Manager, Ecologist, Environmental policy adviser


NGOs at their best play an active role in the development of societies all around the world. They offer immediate help for basic needs but also seek to change the underlying structures and systems, to reduce discrimination, fight for human rights and make sustainable change possible.

What are the requirements to be hired by an NGO ?
Qualifications to work for an NGO

Getting started: NGO internships provide valuable experience at early career stages. Internships often operate on a rotational basis, allowing candidates to try a range of roles including admin, finance, HR, IT and logistics.

Entry level humanitarian jobs e.g. translating or driving, may be found at a time of disaster response where being on location gives candidates an advantage. However, some NGOs require candidates to have 2 years work experience in their field to enable teams to “hit the ground running”.

  • PRINCE 2 Project Management qualifications
  • Certificate in Humanitarian Logistics (CHL)
  • Degree in law, civil engineering, nursing or midwifery.
  • ee in finance/accountancy, IT or Human Resources
  • Masters level qualifications: MSc in Tropical Medicine or Engineering for Development.


Entry level humanitarian jobs and NGO internships need employees with a range of skills including:

  • Strong communication abilities
  • Good language skills, both spoken and written
  • Teamwork
  • Reliable organisational skills
  • Capacity to quickly learn new tasks
  • Basic IT skills

For example, an intern working as a campaigns assistant for an environmental NGO will need to quickly learn the core messages of the campaign to engage supporters.

NGO graduate jobs look for skills including:

  • Leadership
  • Decision making
  • Staff management
  • Negotiation
  • Problem solving
  • Advanced IT skills to manage budgets and donor reporting

For example, a Water and sanitation engineer working on a dam project will lead a team of workers, decide on the best type of dam, negotiate with local communities and track spending and timeframes.



Career opportunities in NGOs can be opened up by particular knowledge, for example

  • Hiring staff with local knowledge of the traditions and customs of a particular country, region or people group can help new NGOs avoid causing offence.
  • Recruiting employees with local knowledge about safety and security can help NGOs avoid flooded roads or dangerous areas.
  • Specialist knowledge within their team helps NGOs follow agreed humanitarian guidelines, for example knowledge of the recommended ratio of toilets to people in a camp or the measurements of a child’s upper arm which signify malnutrition.


Career opportunities in NGOs can also depend on developing characteristics including:

  • Staying calm in a crisis, for example managing a queue at a food distribution centre
  • Following instructions in an emergency situation, for example to avoid walking through terrain known to have land mines
  • Being a good listener and putting the needs of the community/beneficiary first
  • Balancing compassion and clarity – being able to say no, to focus on project goals, to not over-promise
  • Developing resilience, for example a climate campaign that takes 3 years to win success with politicians
  • Finding ways to “switch off” after intensive work days, for example cooking or photography
  • Flexibility to take on activities outside the job description, for example as an administrator at a human rights NGO, employees also help with research or monitoring.

NGO Services