It is difficult to categorize NGOs by their specific activities; many NGOs perform a variety of activities and often shift the balance of the activities they pursue. However, in broader terms, most NGOs can be classified as operational or campaigning. Operational NGOs achieve small-scale change directly through projects while campaigning NGOs achieve large-scale change indirectly through influence on the political system.
Operational v. Campaigning NGOs
Operational NGO's have to mobilize resources in the form of financial donations, materials, and volunteer labor in order to sustain their projects and programs. This is a complex process, and these NGOs usually possess a headquarters bureaucracy and field staff. Campaigning NGOs will carry out similar functions, but with a different balance between them. Fundraising is still necessary, but on a smaller scale and serves the symbolic function of strengthening the donors' identification with the cause. Persuading people to donate their time is more important; successful campaigning NGOs have the ability to mobilize large numbers of people for certain issues and events.
Both operational and campaigning NGOs need to engage in fundraising, mobilization of work by supporters, organizing special events, cultivating the media and administering a headquarters. Only the defining activities – implementing projects or holding demonstrations – serve to differentiate them. In reality, these distinctions are not clear. Operational NGOs often move into campaigning when the impact of the projects seems to be insufficient. Large development and environment operational NGOs run regular campaigns or at least support campaign networks. Similarly, campaigning NGOs often feel they cannot ignore the immediate practical problems in their policy domain. Human rights NGOs and women's rights NGOs have programs assisting the victims of discrimination and injustice.
Other Categories of NGOs
There are other types of NGOs that promote change by variants of these two primary functions. Research institutes have special forms of operational programs, in which the goal is to increase knowledge and understanding. They range across a spectrum from those promoting an academic, non-political issue to those collating and disseminating information for campaigning purposes.
There are also professional bodies, trade unions, recreational groups and associations of companies, which provide program activities for their members. Sometimes, these organizations also campaign to enhance their economic interests and status.
Output from the Research Project on Civil Society Networks in Global Governance. (2006, August 15).
Willetts, Peter. What is a Non-Governmental Organization?. Accessed April 17, 2007. URL: http://www.staff.city.ac.uk/p.willetts/CS-NTWKS/NGO-ART.HTM#Part10