Ca­reers – How to start an NGO

Want to start your own non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion? We’ve put to­gether a fail­proof plan on strate­gies, tools, eval­u­a­tions and other re­sources to start your own NGO.


If you want to set up a non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion (NGO), char­ity or non-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion (NPO), you need to ask if there’s re­ally a need for it or if you’d be bet­ter off sup­port­ing an ex­ist­ing one, says Vicky Fer­gu­son, di­rec­tor of Glad’s House, a project for street chil­dren. “I saw hun­dreds of youths be­tween 16 and 20 on the street all day, stoned, and there was noth­ing for them. I asked around if there was a char­ity that helped them. Then a col­league said, ‘Why don’t we set up our own or­gan­i­sa­tion?’”

The tra­jec­tory from dream to thriv­ing NPO wasn’t easy, and Fer­gu­son’s ex­pe­ri­ence of­fers valu­able lessons for any­one want­ing to set up their own NGO. “We made a lot of mis­takes through naivety. We be­lieved what peo­ple said they would do for us. Don’t go it alone, col­lab­o­ra­tion is very im­por­tant,” she adds. Thor­ough plan­ning dur­ing the start-up process is cru­cial to de­velop an ef­fec­tive and pro­fes­sional or­gan­i­sa­tion that’s able to meet the many chal­lenges faced by the world to­day.

Here are use­ful steps on how to go about it:


The dif­fi­cul­ties of start­ing the process can be min­imised by fol­low­ing a con­sis­tent se­ries of steps and seek­ing ad­vice when needed.

Penny Mpanza, di­rec­tor of the Let’s Build Our Coun­try Fund (LBOC) says NGOs/NPOs are not for profit, so giv­ing should be in your DNA oth­er­wise you won’t last. “Have pas­sion for what­ever the cause you are stand­ing for and give your heart and soul to it.”


Many new ac­tivists are ready to com­mit their lives to “the cause”. A few months down the line these en­thu­si­as­tic new­bies are gone. Be en­thu­si­as­tic, but be­fore start­ing your own NGO, con­sider join­ing one that does sim­i­lar work for a while.

If start­ing your own NGO is right for you, the ex­pe­ri­ence of work­ing for an es­tab­lished one will only strengthen your re­solve and di­rect your pas­sion. Maybe you’ll find that NGOs are not your life call­ing af­ter all. It’s best to learn that early on be­fore mak­ing a big com­mit­ment.


A plan of ac­tion is your chance to make an NGO ef­fec­tive, ad­dress any po­ten­tial neg­a­tive im­pacts and make sure your NGO will at­tract donors and vol­un­teers.

Make sure you are able to fol­low through with what you start. Think hard about your ac­tion plan. Hard work’s im­por­tant, but hard work with­out a good plan is a waste of time and money.


Lo­cal knowl­edge is in­dis­pens­able to ev­ery NGO. Even if you grew up in the city where you want to start an NGO, you’ll need to re­search and make con­tacts. Mak­ing solid lo­cal con­tacts and un­der­stand­ing the lo­cals’ world­view is im­por­tant if you want to work in a for­eign cul­ture. Good use of lo­cal knowl­edge can make an NGO ef­fec­tive. With­out it, you may do more harm than good.


Money, when it does come, usu­ally re­quires great amounts of pa­per­work and some­times has strings at­tached. The qual­ity of the work an NGO does and the amount of its fund­ing are of­ten in­versely re­lated. That means the NGOs with less money do bet­ter work per hour and rand spent. The cru­cial point is to min­imise your NGO’s need for money. That said, funds can be re­ally help­ful some­times. Here’s how to get it. Fil­ing for 501c (of­fi­cial non-profit) sta­tus is a pain and in­volves costly lawyer fees. Don’t waste your ef­forts there. Get an es­tab­lished NGO to ac­cept you un­der its um­brella. Tax de­ductible do­na­tions and grants will go to them, and care of your NGO. Set­ting up this ar­range­ment could be as easy as a 30-minute talk with your lo­cal peace cen­tre. Now you’re ready to ask for money from busi­nesses, grant foun­da­tions, and gov­ern­ments. A PayPal do­nate but­ton is a quick and easy way to ac­cept do­na­tions from vis­i­tors to your web­site. Ev­ery spon­sor or donor gives money with an ob­jec­tive in mind. “It’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand when we ap­proach a po­ten­tial spon­sor – why is he do­nat­ing? What ad­van­tages can they ob­tain? What PR mileage can they re­ceive from the act?” ad­vises Max­ine Hol­man, MD of Fly­ing for Life.

It’s equally im­por­tant to main­tain pro­fes­sion­al­ism and build trust with the spon­sor or donor. Tran­parency, ac­count­abil­ity and com­mu­ni­ca­tion are in­te­gral parts of the NGO.


Be re­al­is­tic about how much time you want to give to your NGO. Tak­ing on projects be­yond your com­fort­able lim­its won’t yield much ben­e­fit in the long run. You are worth more to your NGO as a part-time ac­tivist for 5 to 20 years than let­ting your pas­sion burn out in two years. Find­ing work/ per­sonal life bal­ance is key to suc­cess.

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