New Internationalist

Ask before you give!

Issue 383

Some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are better than others, but it’s not always easy to tell the difference. Here are a few questions worth putting to any NGOs that appeal to you. The answers you come up with - from what you already know, from the material they produce, or from asking them directly - might help you to decide.

Illustration by Kate Charlesworth
Illustration by Kate Charlesworth


If you want to support an organization, rather than a specific appeal, have you considered:

  • Searching out small rather than big ones?
  • Making modest contributions regularly – ‘committed giving’?
  • Donating not just hard cash but time, skill, energy?


More money doesn’t always make for a better NGO. The way funds are raised is critical to its nature.

  • Are exploitative or degrading images, especially of children, ever employed?
  • Is ‘child sponsorship’ – which aims to benefit some individuals, but not others, within the same community – a significant source of income?
  • Do fundraising techniques add to knowledge and understanding?


Most NGOs run public awareness campaigns of some sort. This may be the single most important thing they do.

  • Are campaigns seen as an appropriate way of spending, rather than raising, funds?
  • What priority do they have within the organization?
  • Are members or supporters actively engaged?


NGOs have to deal with them. But acting as their allies is another matter altogether.

  • What steps are taken to avoid association with government policy?
  • Are contracts turned down if they involve, say, privatization?
  • Is there a clearly stated limit to government funding as a proportion of total income?


Many – though not all – NGOs now cultivate links with business and transnational corporations. Some do so more than others.

  • Are there published ‘ethical’ guidelines which preclude association with arms manufacturers, for example?
  • Are there also less prominent links, like payroll giving?
  • Is there a clearly stated limit to corporate-linked funding as a proportion of total income?


The ethos of an NGO may be ‘businesslike’. But other things may be more important.

  • Has it ever explored alternatives to orthodox, authoritarian, hierarchical forms of management?
  • What is the salary package of the CEO, and the differential with junior staff – is it increasing?
  • Are ‘expenses’ in general – and travel to, or accommodation and ‘lifestyles’ in, poor communities in particular – appropriate?


Big may look beefier. But it may also be clumsier.

  • Is there any planned limit to the size of the organization?
  • Is growth used as a measure of success?
  • Have the potential benefits of breaking down into smaller parts ever been explored?


NGOs – particularly international ones – do not have to run all their own projects. They can work in partnership with others.

  • Does the organization have local partners in the places where it works?
  • Is there a policy of local management, staffing and sourcing (of equipment, materials and the like)?
  • What influence do partners have in the NGO?


All organizations need reserves. But anything more than a year’s running costs is probably excessive and wasteful.

  • What level of reserves does the organization maintain?
  • Does it use financial ‘instruments’, like hedge funds, to maximize them?
  • Is there a published ethical investment or financial management policy?


Most – though not all – NGOs are ‘tax-exempt’ or registered charities. This represents a huge financial boon to the organization – but it may come with strings attached.

  • Is the organization able to identify any conflicts of interest that this status imposes on its work?
  • Have these ever been weighed against the financial benefits?
  • What circumstances would prompt the organization to give up its tax-exempt or charity status?


The vagueness of this is currently a contentious issue. In theory an NGO may be accountable to a ‘board’ or ‘trustees’ – in practice real power usually lies with major donors.

  • To whom is the organization formally accountable?
  • By whom are these people appointed?
  • By whom can they be removed?


The ‘beneficiaries’ or recipients are usually prohibited by law from participating in charitable decision-making. But that doesn’t mean their views have to be ignored altogether.

  • How much information – about the organization, its finances, the project they are involved with, or anything else – do they regularly receive?
  • How are they able to make their views known?
  • How are these views then acted upon by the organization?


Charities are not allowed to intervene directly in ‘party’ politics. But they are clearly involved in political issues and can’t absolve themselves altogether.

  • Does the organization broadly support the movement for global justice?
  • Is it informed by a critique of corporate globalization and neoliberal orthodoxy ‘at home’ in the rich world?
  • Is it, for example, currently opposed to any aspect of the ‘War on Terror’ or the occupation of Iraq?

Donors or potential donors have real power, which is part of the problem. But that power, and responsibility, can also be used in favour of positive change.

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This article was originally published in issue 383

New Internationalist Magazine issue 383
Issue 383

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If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.

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