Some common characteristics of NGOs according to Ball and Dunn[1] are:
  • They are formed voluntarily;
  • They are independent of government;
  • They are not for private profit or gain; and
  • Their principal is to improve the circumstances and prospects of disadvantaged people.

Overseas development NGOs are just a small fraction of this wider group, with more than 100 operating in Australia. Some international development NGOs have local affiliates, such as Red Cross, Oxfam and World Vision, whilst others are wholly Australian, for example Palms Australia. Some NGOs operate from Australia whilst others transfer funds to partner NGOs in recipient countries.

A small number of NGOs pioneered private overseas aid during the colonial period before World War II. A larger number were established in the post-war period, and today over 1.5 million Australians are involved in supporting an overseas aid and development NGO, with almost $800 million raised by Australian NGOs for overseas aid and development in 2008.[2]

NGOs enjoy high levels of public confidence. Research by the World Economic Forum in 2004 based on interviews of 19,000 people across 20 countries revealed that NGOs are widely regarded as the most trustworthy of organisations. Australians had an even higher degree of trust in NGOs than the other nations involved in the survey.[3]

NGOs can help provide a voice for disadvantaged people in society, a crucial aspect of a democratic society.[4]  However, this role has been threatened, with the attitudes of previous governments ranging from apathy to outright hostility. The previous Howard Government was particularly hostile towards advocacy NGOs in all areas, for criticising government policy, and sought to exclude NGOs deemed too political from charitable status, which allows them to offer tax-deductible donations. The removal of charitable status can drastically reduce an NGO’s funding, as donor foundations are only able to donate to NGOs because of their tax-deductible status.[5]


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Last updated 4 November 2010





[1] Ball, C. and Dunn, L. Non-Governmental Organisations in the Commonwealth: Guidelines for Good Policy and Practice, London: The Commonwealth Foundation, 1994

[2] ACFID, 2009, Facts and Figures,, last accessed 8/10/10

[3] World Economic Forum, Global Survey on Trust: Update 2004,

[4] Dalton, Bronwen; Lyons, Mark, Representing the Disadvantaged in Australian Politics: the Role of Advocacy Organisations, Canberra: The Australian National University, 2005.

[5] Maddison, Sarah; Denniss, Richard; Hamilton, Clive, Silencing dissent: non-government organizations and Australian democracy, The Australia Institute, 2004. Accessed at