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What exactly is the difference between an NGO and a political party? They’re both volunteer-based groups formed to promote certain political viewpoints in public government. Both are primarily funded by donation or personal wealth and achieve their goals through support of ideologically similar candidates and targeted demographic advertising.

Possible Distinctions I Discarded

Non-For-Profit

Political organizations are tax-exempt.

And really, would any but the most Objectivist of parties tell you they are for profit?

Ability to Run Political Candidates

The Nation of Islam ran Abdul Alim Muhammad, Shawn Brakeen, and George X Cure for various state government positions in 1990.

Capacity to Operate Transnationally

The Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party is active in multiple Middle Eastern countries.

Independent of Government Influence

And parties aren’t?

Edit: To clarify, I’m looking for a general academic definition. If one doesn’t exist, I’d still appreciate a response as to why and how. If I have any misconceptions, please also let me know.

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  • What definition of NGO applies to this question?
    – phoog
    Nov 16 '21 at 0:40
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    Most NGOs aren't political at all, they're humanitarian organizations.
    – Barmar
    Nov 16 '21 at 0:40
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    But Wikipedia says that polical parties can be considered to be NGOs.
    – Barmar
    Nov 16 '21 at 0:41
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    @EntEndless A definition that isn't "popular" isn't really a useful definition, since it won't be understood by most speakers of the language. Words and phrases get their meaning from the way they're used.
    – Barmar
    Nov 16 '21 at 16:01
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    Does this answer your question? What are the differences between a PAC/SuperPAC and a political party?
    – yoozer8
    Nov 19 '21 at 17:55
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The fundamental difference is that a political party has the goal of achieving a position of government.

In a democracy, this means that they field candidates in elections in the hope of winning those elections. In the UK, Labour, The Conservatives the Greens and Sinn Fein are all political parties.

In an autocracy they are either the party of power, or they are a revolutionary group aiming to depose the party of power, or secede from the country. The Communist Party of Vietnam, the Taliban and Partido Democrático da Defesa do Estado Lunda-Tchokwé are all political parties (though they may also be military groups too)

This contrasts with NGOs, who may attempt to influence the government, but make no attempts to become the government. Most "good" NGO will try to influence the government by persuasion, lobbying, protesting or campaigning. Less reputable NGOs might attempt to influence the government by bribery, blackmail, threats and acts of violence.

The Nation of Islam is an edge case. I'd argue that by fielding candidates for various state positions, with the intention of winning those elections, they became a political party. A pressure group might field a candidate with no intent to actually be elected, but just to generate publicity. It could be argued that the Nation of Islam had no intent to win those elections. I'm not enough of an expert to tell for sure.

In some countries, political parties are specially defined in law, but this definition would naturally vary from one country to another.

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    The Taliban and ISIS are certainly political parties. They aspire to government. They may not be Nice political parties, and they are not democratic parties...And the posession of a paramilitary wing doesn't prevent something from being a political party (eg Sinn Fein)
    – James K
    Nov 16 '21 at 0:02
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    I say that you don't have to like an organisation to recognise that it has features of a political party. When a drugs cartel wants to become the government, it becomes a political party. No matter how thuggish the group is. And yes the Taliban are pretty awful. But no matter. They are the government of Afghanistan whether I like it or not.
    – James K
    Nov 16 '21 at 0:15
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    @markvs No. Al Capone's syndicate never aspired to be the government. They hoped to influence the government (by bribery etc) Hence Al Capones Mafia was an NGO.
    – James K
    Nov 16 '21 at 6:17
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    @markvs de jure or de facto? Through political means or through violence and intimidation?
    – phoog
    Nov 16 '21 at 8:50
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    @markvs ok, but the information I found through a casual search of the internet suggests that Capone and his organization were not actually the government of Cicero in the sense that James K has in mind, so I thought I'd ask you to elaborate on the line of reasoning that connects them to this answer.
    – phoog
    Nov 16 '21 at 13:23
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In Germany, the federal election commissioner determines if an organization qualifies as a party. Parties have a different legal status from other organizations, including reporting requirements for their finances and the need to have democratic internal structures. On the plus side, a party candidate doesn't need to collect supporting signatures to get onto a ballot if that party had a credible showing in previous elections, and they can get matching public funds for (some) financial contributions.

A party

  • must consist mostly of citizens,
  • must intend to operate for a prolonged time (i.e. not just one ballot initiative),
  • must intend to run candidates for federal or state elections,
  • must have recognizable structures and a sufficient membership,
  • must act publicly to influence the political landscape and have a manifesto,
  • and must do this earnestly.

Of course whenever the election commissioner decides against a possibly-not-party, they can go to court. Sometimes they win, sometimes not.

  • There is The PARTY, founded by the staff of a satire magazine and just barely earnest enough to be accepted as a party. They have managed to elect MEPs.
  • The German Communist Party was excluded from the federal ballot for their repeated failure to file annual financial reports, but a court later revised this decision.
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Academically speaking, Non-Government Organization (NGO) is a very broad, umbrella term that has a technical definition which includes, non-profit corporations, non-legal (meaning not defined in law, as opposed to 'illegal') entities such as religions or informal community efforts, and also - Political Parties, except in (usually single-party) states where the political party is at least de facto, and often de jure, an extension of the government itself. It does not exclude for-profit entities, but conversationally they're not usually meant to be included unless there's a particular pattern of influence involved.

Because political science academia tends to focus on policymaking and service provision, when the term is used conversationally it has the narrower meaning of such organizations which meaningfully contribute to policy, economic, or social outcomes. This is why sometimes for-profit entities are discussed as NGOs - monopoly firms whose behavior has the de facto effect of dictating policy outcomes in their market are NGOs in this sense.

The Catholic Church is an NGO (at least in the United States), it takes direct policy advocacy stances and provides various social services through it's churches, but it is not part of the United States government in any way.

The International Standards Organization (ISO) is an NGO even though it doesn't directly participate in policy discussion, nor does it provide social services, because wherever governments have been silent as to industrial standards, ISO has created a de facto form of policy which carries considerable weight.

A Credit Union is, technically, an NGO - and here the difference between the strict technical definition versus the conversational definition can be seen: the Credit Union doesn't contribute to policy decisions or outcomes, and arguably doesn't contribute social services - and so is generally not intended to be included when the term is invoked, because scholars care most about entities that meaningful influence policy/economic/social outcomes.

Political Parties, therefore, are NGOs. But not all NGOs are political parties.

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NGO is an acronym for "non-governmental organization", and, by common usage, excludes "for-profit" businesses. It is somewhat broader than the term "non-profit corporation" in the United States usage.

Political parties are only one form of NGO. Most NGOs are not political parties.

The list of considered but discarded reasons given in the question seems, to me, snarky, not a serious or accurate attempt to distinguish an NGO from a political party. It doesn't deserve point-by-point engagement.

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    Labelling something with words like snarky is not the best way to explain what's wrong.
    – FluidCode
    Nov 17 '21 at 13:44
  • Perhaps a better way to say it would be that the OP seems to be expressing an agenda. @FluidCode
    – Barmar
    Nov 19 '21 at 23:34
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    But to be fair to the answerer, "And really, would any but the most Objectivist of parties tell you they are for profit?" seems kind of snarky.
    – Barmar
    Nov 19 '21 at 23:34

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