In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Communication and NGOs

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Overviews by Region
  • Journals
  • Issue Area Journals
  • Digital Resources
  • Theories of Civil Society
  • Influences on NGO Communication
  • NGO-Journalist Relations
  • Media Coverage of NGOs
  • Evaluations of NGO Communication

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Communication Communication and NGOs
Matthew Powers
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 August 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0121


The term “nongovernmental organization” (NGO) refers to groups that are nominally independent of government, voluntary in nature, and interested in the pursuit of a common good (e.g., human rights, gender equality, environmental protection). They can be found working at various levels (local, national, international) on a range of issues. Since the end of the Cold War, NGOs have become the dominant organizational form of civil society. In this position, they communicate to achieve a range of objectives: to boost awareness of important social issues, to lobby political and business actors to alter their behaviors, and to raise funds and promote their organizational brands. For communication scholars, the relationship between NGOs and communication is therefore important for understanding the organizational basis of activism, the degree to which the news media are open to advocacy messaging, and the role of new technologies in the production and distribution of advocacy materials. The purpose of this article is to overview the communication strategies that NGOs pursue and to situate these strategies within broader debates about the role of advocacy groups in politics. To do so, it reviews scholarship from a number of fields—including communication, political science, international relations, and sociology—in order to examine the ways these groups communicate, the various influences that shape these efforts, the degree to which they are successful in achieving their objectives, and the effects of their efforts on activism and media, respectively. Given the diversity of the NGO sector, the sections include readings on a variety of topics and from a number of geographic regions.

General Overviews

Several volumes provide useful historical and substantive overviews on the study of NGOs. White 1951 offers the earliest—and, to-date, most comprehensive—history of these groups. Willetts 2011 examines the different activities in which NGOs engage, as well as the impact they have on world politics. In contemporary scholarship, the key reference is Keck and Sikkink 1998, which situates NGOs as the communicative backbone of “transnational advocacy networks.” Florini 2000 emphasizes the importance of NGOs as “norm setters.” For a more skeptical view, see DeMars 2005, which argues that NGOs often fail to live up to their stated aims. Hilhorst 2003 provides an overview of the discursive strategies advocacy groups employ and finds a regular gap between stated aims and outcomes. Davies 2014 situates NGO development within globalization processes. Yanacopulos 2015 describes recent transformations in the field and suggests they have led to communicative emphases on fundraising, branding, and marketing. The key quantitative overview of the field can be found in Blodgood 2011. Finally, Lang 2013 delineates the similarities and differences between the concepts of NGO, civil society, and public sphere.

  • Blodgood, Elisabeth. 2011. The Yearbook of International Organizations and quantitative non-state actor research. In The Ashgate research companion to non-state actors. Edited by Bob Reinalda, 19–34. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.

    Reviews the available data—drawing primarily on the Yearbook of International Organizations—on the size and scope of the NGO field. The author also discusses the strengths and limitations of the available data sources.

  • Davies, Thomas. 2014. NGOs: A new history of transnational civil society. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199387533.001.0001

    Situates the development of NGOs within three historical “waves” from the 19th century to the present day. The author devotes sustained attention to NGOs beyond Western Europe and North America.

  • DeMars, William E. 2005. NGOs and transnational networks: Wild cards in world politics. London: Pluto.

    A critical examination of the role NGOs play in international politics. The author cautions that NGOs often support—rather than challenge—the goals of political and economic elites.

  • Florini, Ann M., ed. 2000. The third force: The rise of transnational civil society. Washington, DC: Japan Center for International Exchange.

    An influential edited volume that examines the role NGOs play in shaping global norms like transparency and accountability. The contributors argue that NGO-led advocacy groups influence policies and educate the public about the actions and misdeeds of businesses and governments.

  • Hilhorst, Dorothea. 2003. The real world of NGOs: Discourses, diversity and development. London: Zed Books.

    Critically reviews the discursive strategies NGOs employ and compares them to the actual results they achieve. In many cases, the author finds a substantial gap between the two and draws on organizational theories to explain why this should be so.

  • Keck, Margaret E., and Kathyrn Sikkink. 1998. Activists beyond borders: Advocacy networks in international politics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    Argues that globalization makes it possible for NGOs to create transnational advocacy networks. The authors illustrate the argument with examples of human rights advocacy, environmental coalitions, and efforts to combat violence against women.

  • Lang, Sabine. 2013. NGOs, civil society and the public sphere. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A theoretical synthesis of the relationships between NGOs, civil society, and the public sphere, illustrated by case studies of urban and gender advocacy in Western Europe and North America.

  • White, Lyman Cromwell. 1951. International non-governmental organizations: Their purposes, methods and accomplishments. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press.

    Reviews the historical genesis of private international organizations. White—who in his time at the United Nations helped to shape the organizations he studied—draws on a wide variety of examples, from development groups to the International Olympic Committee.

  • Willetts, Peter. 2011. Non-governmental organizations in world politics: The construction of global governance. Milton Park, UK: Routledge.

    Chronicles the types of activities in which NGOs engage, and overviews their organizational structures and memberships. Willetts argues that NGOs today play a key role in global politics, both inside the United Nations and in political capitals around the world.

  • Yanacopulos, Helen. 2015. International NGO engagement, advocacy and activism: The faces and spaces of change. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1057/9781137315090

    Describes recent transformations in the NGO field with a focus on professionalization, and argues that these changes lead to communicative emphases on branding, fund-raising, and marketing rather than public engagement.

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