Code of Ethics and Conduct for NGOs

In recent years, we have witnessed a dramatic increase in the importance, number, and diversity of non-governmental organizations (NGOs). NGOs now impact policies and advance initiatives that once were nearly exclusively the domain of governments and for-profit corporations, and their humanitarian service has become vital to the well-being of individuals and societies throughout the globe. In many cases, NGOs have proven more adept than governments in responding to particular needs.

This powerful “third sector,” existing between the realms of government and business, is bringing an unprecedented vitality and ability to bear on critical issues related to service and world peace. NGOs’ flexibility and connections to grassroots communities aid them in mobilizing resources quickly to affected areas. Their often single-minded commitment and strong motivation affords them a civic power that other institutions may lack.

However, with their increased importance comes increased responsibility. NGOs have the responsibility to be transparent, honest, accountable, and ethical, to give out accurate information, and to not manipulate situations for the personal benefit of their boards and staff. NGOs have a calling to go beyond the boundaries of race, religion, ethnicity, culture and politics. They have the obligation to respect each person’s fundamental human rights. NGOs are to have a system of proper governance. They must be careful to treat all public monies with utmost seriousness as a public trust and not to misuse public money for selfish purpose. NGOs have an obligation to not align themselves with, or stand in opposition to, any particular government for purely selfish or shortsighted means, nor to become controlled by a governmental body. In short, NGOs have the responsibility to dedicate themselves for the sake of others and do so according to the highest code of ethical conduct.

Unfortunately, there are many actors in the NGO community that are neither responsible nor ethical. Alan Fowler, in his book Striking a Balance, utilized a collection of NGO acronyms to identify various NGO “pretenders,” such as BRINGO (Briefcase NGO), CONGO (Commercial NGO), FANGO (Fake NGO), CRINGO (Criminal NGO), GONGO (Government-owned NGO), MANGO (Mafia NGO), and PANGO (Party NGO). Other NGOs may have started with the highest ideals, but now tolerate practices that were previously unacceptable. Many NGOs do not even understand the standards that they should be applying to their activities and governance.

All NGOs, even the most sincere and selfless, can benefit from a code of ethics and conduct that systematically identifies ethical practices and acceptable standards. The adoption and internal enforcement of a suitable code not only provides an ethical check for an NGO; it also serves as a statement to beneficiaries, donors and the public that the NGO takes seriously the importance of maintaining high standards. Such a code can assist stakeholders in identifying and avoiding “pretenders” and irresponsible NGOs.

With this in mind, the Code of Ethics and Conduct for NGOs was produced. The Code is a set of fundamental principles, operational principles, and standards to guide the actions and management of non-governmental organizations.

Developed under the auspices of the World Association of Non-Governmental Organizations (GO Chambers), the Code of Ethics and Conduct for NGOs was formulated by an international committee representing the wide spectrum of the non-governmental community, and included input from NGO leaders from all regions of the world. Numerous standards and codes of conduct and ethics from NGOs and NGO associations worldwide were consulted in formulating this code. Among these were: Association of Fundraising Professionals’ Code of Ethical Principles and Standards of Professional Practice; Australian Council for Overseas Aid’s (ACFOA) Code of Conduct; BBB Wise Giving Alliance’s Standards for Charity Accountability; the Code of Conduct for The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and Non-Governmental Organizations in Disaster Relief; the Code of Conduct for NGOs (Earth Summit, 1992); the Code of Conduct for NGOs in Ethiopia; International Committee on Fundraising Organizations’ (ICFO) International Standards; Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations’ Standards for Excellence: An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector; Minnesota Council of Nonprofits’ Principles and Practices for Nonprofit Excellence; NGO Code of Conduct (Botswana); People in Aid’s Code of Good Practice; Star Kampuchea’s Code of Ethics: Goal, Mission and Roles of NGOs and POS; and Transparency International’s Statement of Vision, Values and Guiding Principles.

The umbrella term “NGOs” encompasses a broad, kaleidoscopic grouping of nonprofit organizations, which espouse a variety of agendas, causes, and ideologies, and differ in size, resources, and organizational level. For the purposes of the Code of Ethics and Conduct for NGOs, an NGO is considered in its broadest context: a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization. The term non-profit is used in the sense of “not-profit-distributing” in that any profits are invested back into the public mission of the organization, and are not distributed for the benefit of the board, staff or shareholders – thus distinguishing the NGO sector from the business sector. The term non-governmental is used in the sense that the organization is independent of government – it is not controlled by a governmental entity nor is it established by an intergovernmental agreement. Included in the definition are large, international organizations and small, one-person operations, those that are secular as well as those that are faith-based, and both membership and non-membershipgroups.

The Code of Ethics and Conduct for NGOs is designed to be broadly applicable to the worldwide NGO community. It applies whether the organization is a mutual benefit NGO, involving an association concerned with improving the situation of its membership, or a public benefit NGO, which is working for the improvement of conditions of society as a whole or of a segment of society. The Code is applicable for organizations focused on international agendas as well as those seeking to improve local community affairs, and both “Northern” and “Southern” NGOs. The Code’s standards are applicable regardless of an NGO’s focus, whether it be humanitarian relief, advocacy, conflict prevention, research, education, human rights monitoring, health care, or environmental action.

As they adopt the role of advocates and agents of a more just and caring society, NGOs can help develop and nurture conscientious concerns in the emerging global culture. Similarly, NGOs also have a duty to maintain the highest ethical standards and stay the course in terms of their own practices and founding vision of service. It is hoped that the Code of Ethics and Conduct for NGOs will help inform and guide the work of NGOs in this capacity.

This Code will be periodically reviewed and revised as warranted.