NGO Vs Civil Society: Difference, Similarities & Examples

NGO Vs Civil Society: Difference, Similarities & Examples

In today’s complex world, the concepts of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society often intertwine, leading to confusion about their roles and functions. Both play essential roles in shaping societies, advocating for change, and addressing pressing issues. 

In this comprehensive blog post, we will delve into the NGO Vs Civil Society connections and similarities. We will also be providing clarity on their purposes, structures, and impacts. To illustrate these concepts in action, we will also explore real-world examples that demonstrate the profound influence these entities can have on local and global communities.

NGOs and Civil Society: Defining the Terms 

Before diving into a detailed comparison, let’s establish clear definitions for NGOs and civil society:

NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations):

NGOs are private, non-profit organizations independent of government control.

They are formed to address specific social, environmental, or humanitarian issues.

NGOs often operate on a local, national, or international level.

Examples of NGOs include Amnesty International, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), and the World Wildlife Fund.

Civil Society:

Civil society encompasses a broader concept that includes NGOs but extends beyond them.

It comprises individuals, groups, and organizations outside of government structures that work collectively to promote the common good. Civil society can involve NGOs, community-based organizations, religious groups, labor unions, and more. It plays a crucial role in fostering democracy, social cohesion, and advocating for citizens’ rights.

Differences between NGOs and Civil Society 

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in the United States engage in a diverse range of initiatives, electoral matters, environmental conservation, healthcare reform, gender equality, economic progress, and numerous other concerns. The United States is home to an estimated 1.5 million active NGOs. Now that we have defined both terms, let’s explore the key differences between NGOs and civil society:

Legal Structure:

NGOs are distinct legal entities, often registered and governed by specific regulations in the countries they operate. Health-focused entities significantly dominate the financial landscape within the broader sector, constituting substantial portions of the sector’s funding at 59.2%, 60.3%, and 43.3%, respectively. Civil society is a broad societal concept that encompasses various entities, including NGOs, without a specific legal structure.

Focus and Purpose:

NGOs have a specific mission and focus on addressing a particular issue, such as healthcare, education, or environmental conservation. Civil society encompasses a wide range of interests and purposes, spanning from advocacy for human rights to cultural preservation.


NGOs rely on a variety of funding sources, including donations, grants, and government support, to sustain their operations. Civil society, being a broader concept, includes organizations that may or may not rely on external funding sources. Some civil society groups are entirely volunteer-driven.

Organizational Size:

NGOs vary in size, with some being small grassroots organizations and others operating on a global scale with vast networks. Civil society is not confined by organizational size and includes informal networks, local groups, and large-scale NGOs.


NGOs typically have a formal governance structure, including a board of directors, leadership roles, and administrative processes. Civil society groups may have more flexible governance structures, with decision-making processes that vary widely.

Similarities between NGOs and Civil Society 

Despite their differences, NGOs and civil society share several fundamental similarities:

Social Impact:

Both NGOs and civil society organizations aim to create positive social change, address pressing issues, and improve the well-being of communities.A mere 49% of respondents in the survey now hold the view that companies exert a positive influence on society, marking a decline from the 58% figure recorded in 2018.

Advocacy and Activism:

Both entities engage in advocacy, lobbying, and activism to influence policies, laws, and public opinion.

Grassroots Engagement:

NGOs and civil society groups often involve individuals at the grassroots level, fostering community engagement and empowerment.


NGOs and civil society entities frequently collaborate with each other, as well as with governments, businesses, and international organizations, to achieve common goals.

According to the “Navigating a Polarising World” report by Sigwatch, trust in Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) has experienced consistent growth since 2017. Additionally, these NGOs are perceived as more effective in addressing social and environmental issues compared to governments or businesses.

Real-World Examples 

To illustrate the differences and similarities between NGOs and civil society, let’s explore some compelling examples:

Amnesty International (NGO):

Amnesty International is a renowned NGO dedicated to human rights advocacy.

Founded in 1961, it operates globally and focuses on issues such as freedom of expression, prisoners of conscience, and ending torture. Its structure includes chapters in various countries, illustrating the international reach of many NGOs.Amnesty International comprises a worldwide community exceeding 10 million individuals dedicated to advocating for a world in which every person can fully enjoy their human rights.

Black Lives Matter (Civil Society):

Black Lives Matter (BLM) is a prominent civil society movement that emerged in response to racial injustice. While BLM includes organized groups and NGOs, it gained worldwide recognition through grassroots activism, protests, and social media campaigns.

BLM exemplifies how civil society can encompass both formal organizations and spontaneous, community-led initiatives.

Greenpeace (NGO):

Greenpeace is a well-known environmental NGO founded in 1971.

It operates internationally and is committed to protecting the environment, biodiversity, and combating climate change. Greenpeace showcases how NGOs can focus on specific global issues with a defined mission.

Women’s March (Civil Society):

The Women’s March is a civil society movement that mobilizes people to advocate for gender equality, women’s rights, and social justice. While it includes organized chapters and NGOs, its impact largely stems from grassroots activism and large-scale protests.


In conclusion, while NGOs and civil society are distinct concepts, they often intersect and collaborate in their efforts to create positive change in the world. NGOs typically have formal structures and specific missions, while civil society encompasses a broader range of groups and initiatives, including grassroots movements.

Both play vital roles in addressing societal issues, advocating for change, and promoting the well-being of communities. By understanding the differences and similarities between NGOs and civil society, we can better appreciate the diverse approaches and strategies employed to tackle the world’s most pressing challenges, ultimately making the world a better place for all.

Gladstone Place Partners Previous post Profile: Gladstone Place Partners
WPP Next post Profile: WPP