Helping Out on Different Scales: NGOs vs. Nonprofits

Across the globe, millions of organizations are making the world a better place. They work in major cities and remote areas — in some of the wealthiest nations on Earth, as well as some of the poorest. These organizations assist individuals, small businesses, communities, and governments. They work in medicine, education, public health, human rights, foreign policy, environmental protection, and more.

A nonprofit food bank collects items

Nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) play an influential role in both local and global affairs. They range from massive, multinational organizations with thousands of employees and many more volunteers to grassroots movements in a single neighborhood. Though NGOs and nonprofits often share similar goals, there are some key differences that set them apart. Continue reading to find out more about NGOs vs. nonprofits, some prominent organizations working in each sphere, and how you can enter a profession in either one.

Nongovernmental Organization Overview

Nongovernmental organizations are politically influential, multinational bodies that use their size and monetary power to push for large-scale changes in countries, cities, and other geographic regions. Frequently serving in major crisis areas, NGOs are often staffed by idealistic professionals who want to make the world a better place, and many have succeeded in making an impact.

Notable NGOs

Many of the world’s most recognizable nongovernmental organizations are so widespread that people might not know they are NGOs. Here are some of the most prominent:

  • Habitat for Humanity. Founded in 1976 by Linda and Millard Fuller, Habitat for Humanity builds homes using volunteer labor, most famously former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. Habitat for Humanity has grown to encompass worksites in more than 1,400 communities in the U.S. and 70 countries around the world, utilizing more than 2 million volunteers each year.
  • International Red Cross. The American Red Cross is the domestic affiliate of the International Red Cross, which started in 1863. The Red Cross is an international humanitarian group of organizations, founded to help alleviate human suffering during wars, but its mission has expanded to include all sorts of relief efforts. In 2017, across more than 80 countries, the Red Cross helped more than 35 million people access better water and sanitation, provided greater food stability to nearly 8 million people, and supplied another 5.4 million with essential household items.
  • Doctors Without Borders. Officially known by its French name, Médecins Sans Frontières, this NGO began in 1971. Doctors Without Borders helps bring medical care to those who otherwise might not be able to access it. The organization, which earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 for its work in the Rwanda genocide, has more than 35,000 employees providing medical care such as vaccinations.

Nonprofit Overview

Nonprofit organizations do everything from providing food, water, and healthcare to supporting education initiatives and funding worthy projects. As nonprofit organizations, they do not have public shareholders or stocks and are not designed to generate profit beyond what they use to maintain staff and fund programs. In the United States, nonprofit organizations are tax-exempt, meaning they can raise money without having to pay taxes on it.

Notable Nonprofit Organizations

There are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the United States alone. Many of the nonprofits most familiar to readers might be local organizations, but here are a few prominent national ones:

  • Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation. Started by 4-year-old Alexandra “Alex” Scott after she was diagnosed with cancer in 2000, Alex’s Lemonade Stand quickly grew from a local story into a national movement. Scott passed away at the age of 8 in 2004, but her parents continue to build on her efforts, raising more than $150 million for pediatric cancer research and helping fund almost 1,000 research projects, as well as supporting countless children with cancer.
  • American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU is a domestic nonprofit whose goal is “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to all people in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.” Since its founding in 1920, it has helped fund legal defenses for citizens no matter their legal status. With an annual budget of over $100 million, the ACLU’s major work includes initiatives to eliminate the death penalty, promote equal rights, and increase access to abortions and birth control.
  • American Cancer Society (ACS). One of the largest cancer nonprofits in the country, the American Cancer Society raises money to fund cancer research and provide treatment and support to cancer patients. Founded in 1913, the ACS now has a presence in 5,000 communities, with 250 regional offices allocating a total of more than $658 million in annual funds.

Similarities Between NGOs and Nonprofits

Both NGOs and nonprofit organizations promote the public good. Though they can approach that aim differently, they often work in the general fields of medicine, education, and social, economic, and political justice. Most NGOs and nonprofits have special taxation classifications; they’re not required to pay the same taxes on income as businesses would, because they generate most of their income through donations, grants, and endowments rather than the sale of a product or service. All NGOs are nonprofit organizations, but not all nonprofits are NGOs.

Differences Between NGOs and Nonprofits

While NGOs and nonprofit organizations may have similar missions and visions, there are two primary differences that set them apart: the typical scale on which they operate and their ability to influence politics.


Nonprofit organizations tend to be smaller and locally based. For example, a nonprofit might be a group of citizens who help maintain a park’s trails or the wing of a professional sports team that supports athletics at local public schools. While they can grow over time into nationally operating nonprofits, many begin as local organizations with a small focus.

NGOs, on the other hand, are multinational organizations with tens of thousands of employees and potentially millions of volunteers. Though they might start small, their missions are typically aimed at creating a big impact, such as improving medical care throughout a given continent or providing housing in underdeveloped countries.

Political Influence

As massive, multinational organizations with a broad mission to improve life on a large scale, NGOs must have reach across political and geographic landscapes. It’s important for these organizations to have a lobbyist on staff or political connections to facilitate their work across borders and in national politics.

Though some nonprofit organizations grow big enough to lobby for political influence, most are too small to influence politics beyond the municipal level. Most nonprofit organizations operate without interacting much with politics, aside from earning their nonprofit, tax-exempt status.

NGOs vs. Nonprofits: Which Organization Type Is Right for You?

Working in an NGO or nonprofit organization can be rewarding, offering the opportunity to make a difference in the lives of thousands of people in your community and beyond. Explore how a degree such as Maryville University’s online Bachelor of Arts in International Studies can help you prepare to make a big impact in either type of organization through foundational coursework in intercultural studies, foreign languages, and economics. Equipped to communicate effectively and understand the systems that underpin work in either organizational structure, you’ll be ready to work to promote good at an NGO or nonprofit.


American Civil Liberties Union, FAQ

Doctors Without Borders, Who We Are

Encyclopedia Britannica, Nongovernmental Organization

The Global Journal, “Top 100 NGOs”

Habitat for Humanity, “40 Facts About Habitat and Housing”

Houston Chronicle, “NGOs vs. Nonprofits”

International Committee of the Red Cross, Who We Are

Investopedia, “What Is an NGO?”

National Council of Nonprofits, “What Is a Nonprofit?” 

U.S. Department of State, Nongovernmental Organizations (NGOs) in the United States

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