NGO, NPO, CBO, PVO….? What are they?

By | 14th February 2017

Note: there are many more terms out there….. I have only focused on those that we found more often. And in particular the difference between NGO and NPO…

First of all… what do those acronyms stand for?

NGO = Non Governmental Organisation
NPO = Not for Profit Organisation / Non Profit Organisation
CBO = Community Based Organisation
PVO = Private Voluntary Organisation

Now that we know what they mean, what is the difference between them?

The first one is based on English language, depending on the country… is it US or UK English? Depending on your country, you might not even use them at all… For example, there are no NGOs in the US. The term is only used if referring to international organisations. In France, while we do not use those terms (as they are English…), we would not have translations for NPO, CBO and PVO: they are all coined as “Association Loi 1901” – but we do have the French equivalent of NGO, albeit in legal term, almost all NGOs are registered as “Association Loi 1901”.

In essence, there are no differences…… They are all Not for Profit Organisations!

The major key is to consider the “non-governmental” and “non-profit” part of the constitution. Any organisation, at any level, can be considered as an NGO, as long as its actions are independent from government and is not created to share profit (any profits made will be re-injected in the organisation).

Those organisations all have in common the grass-root around their creation:
– formed by a group of like-minded individuals
– have a common purpose
– do not share benefits

So why do we have different names? Where do they come from?

To explain this, we need to look in more details into what is meant behind each of them.

CBO: those are grass-roots level organisations, formed at community level.
NPO: those can be any organisation as long as their aim is not to redistribute the profit of their actions to share-holders (not for profit…)
PVO: both CBOs and NPOs can be coined as PVOs, if they are constituted of “private” individuals as opposed to governments or companies.
NGO: The term Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) was “created” by the United Nation (UN) in 1945, to allow some international organisation to seat as observers in some of their meeting. This term was used to differentiate those organisations from the UN, which is itself an inter-governmental organisation.

“At the UN, virtually all types of private bodies can be recognized as NGOs. They only have to be independent from government control, not seeking to challenge governments either as a political party or by a narrow focus on human rights, non-profit-making and non-criminal.”

”In the logic of the language, there is no difference between a non-governmental organization and a private voluntary organization, but NGO still carries neutral connotations and applicability to a diverse range of political actors, whereas PVO suggests moral approval of a more limited range of groups.”

 Today, according to the UN, any kind of private organization that is independent from government control can be termed an “NGO”, provided it is not-for-profit, nonprevention, but not simply an opposition political party.

As well presented on Wikipedia, names vary depending on type of NGOs. And so a CBO is an NGO operating at community level…

The main difference between NGO, NPO, CBO and PVO may well only be the difference in the source of their operating funds and business model. (

However, there is a perception factor in the term NGO. And this may be the other main difference between all those terms. As such, NGO is often associated only with major International Organisations, acting independently from Governments, such as Oxfam, Amnesty International or Médecins Sans Frontière.

“The difference between NGO and NPO is in the scale of their actions and especially in the weight they have in the international balance. It is the treatment that is given to them and the publicity and legitimacy with which they are linked, which are the key and yet somewhat unclear points of the border between them. (in French)

So, for all intend and purpose, any NPO or CBO independent from Government is ultimately also an NGO… as defined by the Council of Europe, regardless of their public status:

“18. There is no universal definition of “NGO”, a term which can be used to cover a wide range of bodies operating within both states and inter-governmental organisations. The definition adopted for the purpose of this recommendation emphasises certain qualities regarded as constituting the essential character of these bodies, namely, that their establishment and continued operation is a voluntary act (that is, a matter of choice for those founding and belonging to them and, in the case of non-membership bodies, those entrusted with their direction), that they are self-governing rather than under the direction of public authorities and that their principal objective is not to generate profits from the activities that they undertake.

19. NGOs can go under various names such as associations, charities, foundations, non-profit corporations, societies and trusts, but it is their actual nature rather than their formal designation that will bring them within the scope of this recommendation.

Legal Status of Non-Govermental Organisations in Europe – Recommendation CM/Rec(2007)14
Basic principles – Paragraph 1, sections 18 & 19 – page 23




5 thoughts on “NGO, NPO, CBO, PVO….? What are they?

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