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Demystifying NGOs

The recent pandemic has brought our country and other parts of the world to a standstill, and caused economic devastation on a scale not seen since the Second World War. While all sections of society were hit, the poor, the homeless, the elderly and the physically challenged were most badly hit. In these difficult times, the non-governmental organisations, or NGOs for short, across the country, provided much-needed relief by distributing food and other assistance.

The word NGO is, perhaps, one of the most misunderstood or maligned words of the English language. An NGO volunteer often gets this look of condescension or suspicion when he or she says, "I volunteer at an NGO." A few bad apples have created the misconception that most NGOs misappropriate funds, enrich themselves at the cost of the less privileged, or pursue a covert agenda under the garb of social welfare. Very often, a volunteer needs to brush aside these slights and carry on with doing what the heart knows is "good work".

Social service, social welfare service, social work and social welfare are used interchangeably when referring to any help or assistance that one person renders to another person in need, without expecting anything in return. It is necessary to understand the subtle yet important differences between these terms. Social service is an act of "helping the helpless" prompted by an individual’s or a group’s desire to assist a needy person or group. Social welfare service is designed to help a vulnerable individual or group and help them return to the social mainstream. Social work is an attempt to help the helpless armed with scientific knowledge, training and skill in the field. Social welfare is an organised system of institutions for social service provision, to help individuals and groups attain satisfying standards of life, health and personal and social relationships. An NGO is a social welfare organisation that seeks to provide services and improve the lives of the less privileged, the challenged and the traditionally deprived.

NGOs were first called by that name in Article 71 of the Charter of the newly formed United Nations Organisation in 1945. While NGOs have no fixed or formal definition, they are generally understood to be non-profit-seeking, independent of the government and voluntary in nature. The NGO sector provides the organisational infrastructure for civil society, the latter being a sum of all institutions and individuals located between the family, the state and the market, where people associate voluntarily to advance common interests.

By many names

Conceptually, NGOs are named in a multitude of ways — as charity organisations in the U.K. and as non-profit organisations or private voluntary organisations in the U.S. In India, they are known as NGOs. They are also called not-for-profit organisations, voluntary development organisations, member-based organisations, community-based organisations, grassroots’ organisations or voluntary agencies or development organisation in different countries and settings.

In India, NGOs take five different legal forms, based on the laws under which they are registered — as a registered society, a public or a private trust, a cooperative society, a trade union and a Section 8 company.

Eminent non-profit sector specialists Salamon and Anheier (1992), in their article "In search of the non-profit sector I: The question of definitions", have given one of the most comprehensive definitions of the NGO — the structural/operational definition which defines an NGO based on its five major characteristics as a formal, private, self-governing, non-profit distributing, voluntary organisation. It is a definition based on observable facts and has cross-cultural rigour — it makes cross-cultural, spatial and temporal comparison among NGOs possible.

The NGO sector is a huge and highly diversified field of activity. They play three important roles: of catalysts of social, economic, political or cultural change; of implementers of programmes, devised by themselves, by donors or by governments and as partners in the development process, with other agents of change, who together try to expand and enhance the development experience.

Peter Drucker, in his book Managing Non-Profit Organisations, calls non-profits human change agents because that is precisely what NGOs seek to do. NGO welfare programmes encompass activities ranging from service delivery in the field of education and health care, setting up homes to shelter destitute, abandoned or orphaned children, training and empowerment programmes for women, challenged children and adults and school dropouts. NGOs also cater to the needs of the incarcerated and the aged. Short stay homes for women fleeing domestic violence, counselling centres for the troubled — NGOs as service providers, do all this and much more. Advocacy NGOs take up the task of creating public awareness of issues affecting the less privileged or special target groups. Membership-based organisations seek the uplift of their members.

Non-governmental organisations suffer largely from a lack of volunteers, inadequacy and uncertainty of funds and frequent turnover of staff. These problems are exacerbated in times such as what we are facing now. As businesses shut down and funds dry up, NGOs are faced with a dual problem of diminishing donations and increasing number of people needing help. At such times, we ought to offer help to NGOs with money, material or man hours, so that they can continue to do their task of helping the helpless.

Volunteering for an NGO is an opportunity for persons who have completed their primary responsibilities, to give of their time and effort and gain far more than they give, in terms of immeasurable satisfaction. A smile on the face of a little homeless child, the grateful glance of a single mother who now has a sewing machine and the skill to augment her family income, a challenged child who can now move or communicate on his own — these are the intangible rewards of volunteering which no amount of money can buy.

When do you plan to start?

(The writer is the Hon. Secretary, Guild of Service (Central), Chennai)

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Printable version | Dec 6, 2021 6:28:31 PM |

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