Nongovernmental Organizations and Educational Institutions


Some years ago, many Americans contemplating a career in international affairs envisioned working for the US Foreign Service. The Foreign Service was the ideal. Conscientious performance would propel those who survived the rigorous recruitment process up a structured career ladder. Ambassador Kenton Keith, who spent more than thirty-three years in the Foreign Service, told us in his profile interview that when he was starting his career, those interested in the international realm also thought about the Peace Corps or the US Agency for International Development (USAID). But that was pretty much it.

Today there are infinitely more choices for those who are pursuing an international career, in the private sector as well as in government. The proliferation of internationally focused private organizations-many of them nonprofit, all of them nongovernmental (NGO)—has created a growing arena for people interested in careers in international education, exchange, and development. The Foreign Service is now only one option among many. As Ambassador Keith told us:

I think that NGOs may actually have more personally rewarding work to offer, in particular for people who have a passion in one area or another. If your passion is environmental protection, you can have an international career in that. If your passion is educational exchange, if your passion is sports . . . with the proliferation of NGOs and interest groups, it's possible to have a job in international, nongovernmental work that is every bit as rewarding as being in the Foreign Service.

And as globalization increases, there will be more and more opportunities in nongovernmental organizations.

A Gallup survey echoes Ambassador Keith's opinion, reporting that many young people think the private sector offers more opportunity for creativity and attracts better minds than traditional federal programs. Because of this, the government now faces "unparalleled and fierce" competition from NGOs in attracting the United States' best and brightest.[1]

What Is an NGO?

NGO. Nonprofit. NPO. Not-for-profit. Private voluntary organization. Any of these terms might be used to describe the organizations listed in this chapter. But do they all have the same meaning? Despite the explosion of private sector activity over the past few decades—what Dr. Lester Salamon, director of the Center for Civil Society Studies at Johns Hopkins University, calls the "global associational revolution"— confusion still persists.

NGOs and private sector organizations are, broadly defined, organizations that are not government agencies (public sector). NGOs do sometimes work in conjunction with the government—many NGOs listed here are referred to as the private sector partners of the Department of State and other US government agencies, implementing US-government funded exchange and development programs. These NGOs might even be funded (at least in part) by US government grants or cooperative agreements. But they are most definitely not a part of the government.

Nonprofits are also called not-for-profits, or NPOs. These are private sector organizations with 501(c)(3) status.[2] Nonprofits are invariably NGOs; that is, they are in the private sector and not a part of the government. But not all NGOs are nonprofits. Indeed, some NGOs (including some of the sample organizations listed later) have both forprofit and nonprofit arms. For example, an organization might have a study abroad component that has been incorporated as a for-profit and a high school exchange foundation that is nonprofit. Both components are dedicated to the cause of international exchange—they have just been financially and legally structured in different ways for various reasons.

We've also included educational institutions in this chapter as places to seek meaningful work. We've done this to recognize two facts: First, many NGOs in international education, exchange, and development have education and educational programs as key elements in their missions. Sometimes they manage language schools and other types of educational institutions. And second, universities, colleges, and high schools play important roles in the creation and facilitation of international programs. A number of the organizations listed here, such as NAFSA and the Institute of International Education, work directly with US universities on international exchange and education programs. Others, such as AIFS and CCI Greenheart, place international students at US high schools for exchange experiences. Still others, such as Ashoka and Abt Associates, are committed to educating communities abroad as a part of their development work, often with an emphasis on social entrepreneurship.

As mentioned, this issue of nomenclature is confusing. Some thinkers are grappling with how it might be fixed. Peter Hero, former president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, asserts that using the term nonprofit to describe an entire sector of organizations that work to support issues of public interest for noncommercial purposes is misleading. "What other sector of our society defines itself by what it is not?" he asks.[3] Because of this misnomer, Hero contends, many who work outside of the nonprofit sector view it not as the vibrant, well-managed, and important part of society that it is but rather as a group of "well-meaning but marginal and haphazardly managed organizations." For Hero, referring to the nonprofit sector by a name that better affirms its value and the benefits it provides to the public would go a long way in changing these perceptions. He suggests "public benefit corporations" or "public benefit sector." Management guru Peter Drucker referred to NGOs and nonprofits as the "social sector." Toward the end of his remarkable career, Drucker came to believe that "it is the social sector that may yet save society." A coalition of nonprofits has adopted the term "independent sector" to describe themselves.

Regardless of perceptions or names, what largely distinguishes NGOs (and nonprofits and educational institutions) from corporations and traditional for-profit businesses is that NGOs typically exist for the "public good." They have missions that are meant to improve society in some way. These organizations are also run much more like businesses or for-profit organizations than most people realize. The basic fiscal management tasks for both NGOs and businesses are quite similar: preparing a budget, producing timely monthly financial statements for the board of directors, and approving disbursements. The need for transparency and accountability applies to all sectors.

  • [1] Within Reach ... But Out of Synch: The Possibilities and Challenges of Shaping Tomorrow's Government Workforce, a report by the Council for Excellence in Government and the Gallup Organization, December 5, 2006.
  • [2] The designation 501(c)(3) is a subsection of the US Internal Revenue Code, which lists provisions granting exemption from federal income tax to various charitable, nonprofit, religious, and educational organizations.
  • [3] Peter Hero, "Language Matters: It Is Time to Change Our Name," October 2001. This article originally appeared in the Association of Fundraising Professionals October 2001 newsletter and can now be accessed in the articles archives at
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