Registering an NGO: A Quick Guide

Hari Srinivas
Management Tools Series E-123. August 2020.

One of the key steps that a group of committed individuals can take to provide a legal basis for their (developmental or other) work is to register themselves as a "non-governmental" organization (NGO). Depending on the country, this term by itself may be different, and can include non-profit organization, voluntary organization, community organization, people's organization etc.

certificateWhy should one go for registering an NGO?

In principle, an NGO does not have to register itself to perform charitable, welfare or developmental activities. However, there are some specific types of activities that can only be carried out if the NGO is registered under the country's specific acts or laws governing NGOs (particularly related to fund-raising). In fact, in most countries, a group can call itself an "NGO" only after it has registered itself under the country's NGO laws with the responsible local authority or agency.

There are also certain important long-term advantages an NGO may gain upon registration, which it could otherwise not take advantage of. Ideally, due to obligations required of a registered NGO, the registration process itself can lead to the development of systematic thinking and functioning of an NGO's management.

Registration is essentially a national process

The "registration" of an NGO is essentially a national process. A group can be set up as a legal entity - as an NGO - only within a country where it is located. National NGO laws usually designate local government departments or agencies for this process, different from those that businesses have to use to obtain a license to operate.

Even if an NGO plans to carry out international activities, in different countries, it is bound by the specific national NGO laws of the country where its headquarters or secretariat is located, or where most of its fund-raising is done. In some countries, laws restrict the membership in an NGO's board to citizens of the country where the registration is being done.

In fact there is no centralized process of "international" registration. Many United Nations agencies have their own system of allowing NGOs to register with them to undertake activities under a "consultative status," which allows NGOs to contribute to the programes and projects of that UN agencies. But this consultative status is limited to the particular UN Agency, and the registration process itself requires that an NGO is registered nationally (besides other requirements).

What are benefits of registering an NGO?

Registered NGOs obtain legal status in order to enable them to interact at the official level, and among donors and other organizations. Members are able to represent the organization, the NGO can open a bank account in the name of the organization, or sign contracts in the name of the organization. A registered NGO can also qualify for financial assistance from government agencies and local, national and international donors.

Other benefits that flow from registration are - guidance and help from relevant registration authorities, contract funds and support from the relevant departments departments, tax exemption from certain incomes, training opportunities, technical assistance, and concessions when obtaining vehicles, equipment and commodities. However these benefits are specific to a country or a local government and are not uniformly spread across all types of registration types, nor are all NGOs able to claim them.

Where should an NGO register?

In most cases, a simple web search on, for example, "How to register an NGO in Nigeria" will provide the necessary results on how to carry out the process specifically for Nigeria, including a list of documents to be submitted.
In most countries, there are specialized departments or officers within local governments that deal with registering an NGO (which may also be called by other different names: non-profit organization, voluntary organization, people's organization, etc.)

There are several documents that need to be submitted, and these differ from country to country. Information on the NGO/NPO Board, its mission statement, programmes and projects info, staff members, funding sources, etc. will typically be necessary.

A typical set of documents to be submitted to the appropriate authority for registering an NGO includes -

Memorandum of Association or Bye-laws
New name of the NGO
Applicable rules and regulations
Plans for annual activities
Plan for financial reports/audit reports
Sources and pattern of income and expenditure
Minutes of the Executive Board or General Assembly
(that endorses the setting up of the NGO)
Letters of support (references)
Other documents

The documents required vary from country to country, and may include other evidential documents such as financial reserves/assets as well. The registration process will invariably also include providing annual reports and financial audit reports to the local authorities/agencies responsible for NGOs. This information may also need to be provided as "decisions" of its general assembly or board meeting - in which case signed minutes of the meeting are also needed.

If you plan to ...

  • run the NGO on a long-term basis
  • raise funds (domestic or international) for project implementation
  • hire people to carry out the implementation, and pay them a salary
  • open a bank account
  • represent the organization in meetings (especially government or UN organized ones)
  • sell products and/or publications (albeit not for profit)
  • take advantage of tax-free breaks that may be in place for NGOs

... yes, it is a good idea to register

Remember that 'registering as an NGO' is a huge responsibility, very similar to starting off a commercial business itself! There are usually a lot of obligations that goes with registration, such as reporting to the local government, keeping detailed financial records, providing detailed records to the tax office (including proper auditing of accounts), setting up an office space, etc. which need to be kept in mind.

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