Anyone can start an NGO, but you’ll need more than just a great project idea to make it work. Establishing an NGO can be an exhausting and challenging process, especially at the beginning. You will need resources, knowledge, skills, and support right from the beginning of your journey.
It is not too difficult to find a cause you care about and have a desire to do something about it. The options are endless from poverty and hunger to education and human rights. Throughout the world there remain significant problems as well as emergent issues that are only recently coming to light. We all want to live in a world without these problems but it is not as simple as creating an NGO to tackle them.
The steps you need to follow to start your NGO vary from country to country. In some developed countries, the process of establishing an NGO has become increasingly streamlined over the years. There are a number of established bodies and organizations who will be able to support you. In other countries, just becoming a legally registered charitable organization can be difficult with changing rules and regulations and you may need to pay for legal support.
In our coming articles, we will identify country-specific step by step process, for now, we’ve set out a flow chart of five steps that you should follow to start your new NGO.
Step 1: Research
If you’re already at the stage where you are considering setting you an NGO it is quite likely that you already know what it is you want to do and where you want to do it. But before you go too far down the line and start working out what your mission and goals are, it is crucial that you first evaluate the environment you plan on operating in. If you want your new NGO to really make a difference there is little point in duplicating the work of other more established NGOs who are likely to know more and have greater experience of the situation. Plus, you will struggle to gain public support for your work if they are already familiar with a successful NGO doing similar work.
Research on different NGOs in the location you plan on working in. Perhaps the most valuable exercise you could undertake at this stage is to visit a number of successful NGOs to discuss your project with them. There is a great chance you will learn something that will benefit your work whether it is about the local issues you are trying to solve, the beneficiaries you expect to work with or common challenges new NGOs face. People working in NGOs tend to share a common vision to create a better world and most will be happy to answer your questions and offer a little bit of support as long as you don’t take up too much of their time.
Step 2: Philosophical Backbone
At this stage, you should have a reasonable understanding of what you want to do, who you plan to support and how you will do it. Now you just need to distill the concepts you have into a clear structure on paper that you can share with your contacts. There are a number of essential ingredients you need to establish that will form the philosophical backbone of your organization.
What is your mission? Every charity and NGO have one. It serves as a guidebook informing others: whether they be potential beneficiaries, donors or partners, exactly what it is your NGO will be established to do. Mission should be simple, short and easy to understand while capturing the essence of the problem you want to solve.
What services are you going to deliver and for whom? If you have done a good quality research in step one you should easily answer what services you are going to deliver and for whom. Establishing an NGO is a long process and there is no need to rush or get overconfident wanting to fix all of the world’s problems right away. To start off include 2-3 small projects and try to concentrate your efforts on it. With every new service, you add you create significantly more work to support it from fundraising and marketing to operations and human resources. One of the most common reasons new grassroots NGOs fail is because they stretch themselves too thinly and never become great at any one thing.
How you plan to fund your NGO? Fundraising is an ongoing concern for almost all NGOs, even big INGOs need to continue fundraising to deliver their services. There are different ways that you can fund your organization from. It is important to study how similar NGOs working in your chosen location raise their funds. If it isn’t clear from their website or other materials then just ask. NGOs are expected to be transparent about where their funding comes from and most will be open about it. This will give you plenty of information to build your own fundraising strategy.
Who will be on your organizational chart? Depending on the type of projects you plan to run, you need to list out people you want to work with. Plan an organizational structure. Prior to registering, an NGO should first establish a Board of Directors or an Advisory Board. In almost all countries registering an NGO require multiple officers or board members signatures. Other than that, also plan on who will be responsible for fundraising, project management, monitoring, governance, promotion, networking, and finances. Set about creating a clear organizational chart that incorporates clear lines of control and responsibility as well as brief job specifications for each role.
Where will you work from? The final piece of your NGOs fledgling backbone is to identify and work towards the facilities you need in place for your NGO to operate and deliver services. Some NGOs are based out of founder’s homes or at local community space with extremely low overheads. But again, it depends on the type of NGO you are working to establish. A care home for older people takes significantly more time, investment and resources to set up compared to an after-school club for children. The first demands a modified building, staff, and medical facilities while the latter requires little more than a room. Understanding exactly what your NGO needs to be successful and to operate effectively is crucial to the sustainability of your NGO.
Here, you may start to feel a little overwhelmed. Don’t worry, this is totally natural and you should try to channel your concerns into working diligently on organizing the structure of your burgeoning NGO.
Step 3: Legal Gymnastics
Most charitable organizations need to be established in such a way that they are able to receive the donation, whether it is from the government, bilateral/multilateral or individual donor. This normally requires that the new NGO is formally registered with its country’s government. Every country is different and will have different requirements for organizations’ wishing to register as an NGO.
In developed countries, there is often an umbrella organization that manages charities and similar organizations, such as the Charities Commission in the United Kingdom. The first thing you should do is check if there is a government body that is able to support your NGO to become registered. Even if there is not a dedicated organization, there may be departments within the government body that deals with tax, social services or healthcare that may be able to provide suitable support and advice.
For Example: In Nepal, an NGO is registered by the District Administration Office of the related district
Registering an NGO may well be time-consuming and confusing which makes for a frustrating experience but don’t get disheartened. Persistence is the most important quality at this stage, you need to be able to overcome setbacks and continue to focus on your goal if you want to achieve it.
As part of the legal registration process, you will need a set of formal documents filed with a government body to legally document the creation of an NGO, also knows as, Articles of incorporation.
- Name of NGO
- Purpose of NGO
- Location of NGO
- Constitution and Bylaws set
- Names and addresses of all NGO Board Members
- Original and a copy of citizenship of the working members
- Organization members’ character report
- Details on legal liability
- Capital and stock details of the NGO
- What time period the NGO expects to exist (can be unlimited)
- A formal statement confirming that the NGO is a non-profit making organization
- Recommendation letter
Note: The above list is an example and the exact details may vary with regulations of the specific country. Even if one of these documents is not required you may still wish to consider creating one for future reference.
Step 4: Guiding Principles
Your NGO’s Articles of Incorporation serve to inform external bodies and individuals about the legal foundation and principles of your NGO. Guiding Principles, or in some quarters bylaws, provide a framework for your NGO’s work, principle, structure and decision making. This document is crucial and can help guide you through even the most treacherous conditions. In fact, even some of the oldest NGOs in the world continue to use their original guiding principles as a guide for how the organization should work both over the short and long term. Make sure that your original vision for your NGO is captured in this document as it may well survive longer than your own life.
The guiding principles will also aid you in resolving disputes or conflicts about which direction your NGO should head in and should be available to both staff and beneficiaries alike to consult. Make sure everyone involved in setting up your new NGO has an opportunity to feed in and later comment on your proposed set of principles. These principles are often adapted as organizations evolve and progress to allow them to do more of different fields, to grow and expand or even to limit the scope of their work. As NGOs grow and become more complicated so do their guiding principles but at this stage, you should just focus on the vital pieces of the puzzle that will guide your NGO towards its vision.
The main guiding principles that most organizations include are below:
- Mission and Vision
- Registered Office
- Definition of beneficiaries
- Board size, responsibility, and structure
- Officer duties and responsibilities
Tip: If you are still unsure, take a look at other similar NGO guiding principles which you can normally find on their respective websites.
Step 5: Establish your presence
Now that most of the legal affairs have been completed it is time to put down a marker for your new NGO. It is time to get out there and let people know that you exist and what you plan to do. This is not the time to start your project. Host your new NGOs first official board meeting where you can approve your NGO’s Guiding Principles. Acknowledge the organization’s formal registration as an NGO and start to lay out a timetable of action for getting your new project running. This first meeting provides an opportunity to establish officers such as a Chief Executive, Chairman, Secretary, and Treasurer as well as establishing committees to manage different areas of the business such as fundraising and human resources. It is also the best place to decide on preliminary projects and to appoint people to start to tie up any loose ends and unfinished tasks that need to be completed. Be sure to take minutes of your meeting and disseminate them amongst everyone in attendance. This will help to remind everyone of the discussions that took place as well as acting as a framework for completing tasks.
One of the best ways of making yourself known and accessible not just locally but from anywhere in the world is to create a simple website. Websites are increasingly cheap and easier than ever before to design and host. By launching a simple website, you can quickly and easily spread the word, attract volunteers and donors and provide information to potential beneficiaries who you hope to support. You can combine your digital outreach through online networking in the form of social media. Whether it is Facebook, Twitter or a local language equivalent, you will find a massive audience who are interested in your work. You should work to identify online groups, websites, and associations where you can exchange ideas with similar NGOs and professionals and develop your network. Continue to network in person in your local and regional communities. Try to meet people who work in similar circles, not just NGOs but local government, funding organizations, social services, religious organizations and any others that relate closely to your NGOs work.
(This is an edited version of an article first published on fundsforNGOS)