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The role of NGOs and nonprofits in public health

By Erin A. Bills, MPH Contributor

The internet and in particular, social media, has brought civil society’s social, political and public health issues to center stage, in real time.

This has allowed civil society to take an active role in educating themselves on social and public health issues, and also placed us in a starring role during implementation and formulation of public health programs. Many non-governmental organizations and nonprofit organizations that focus on public health are fueled by a collective desire to advocate public health issues.

Nongovernmental organizations differ from a governmental organization by virtue of the fact that they operate independently of government and don’t operate like a conventional business. Although funds to support NGOs are raised by governments, NGOs maintain a non-governmental position. This means they don’t have governmental administration—a major advantage.

Nonprofits, on the other hand, allocate extra funds to improving the organization rather than allocating money to shareholders and organization owners.

By virtue of the fact that both NGOs and nonprofits have an administrative structure similar to private business—which focus on financial development with the goal of making money—they tend to run more efficiently than the government. By improving efficiency and avoiding red tape, many NGOs and nonprofits have achieved social and public health improvement in recent years.

These organizations are active in many sectors of public health, but most focus on pressing social and public health needs like women’s health, education and access to care in developing, underserved and rural areas. In recent years, nonprofits have set the bar for public health advocacy.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the leading nonprofits working to improve public health worldwide. Its programs focus on improving health in the developing world through immunization programs, agriculture improvement, access to clean water and wastewater treatment, as well as working on social and public health issues in the developed world. It’s been so successful in formulating and implementing programs that it’s changed how the U.S. government addresses many of these issues.

Most organizations like these are primarily based in metropolitan hubs. However, many others making an impact are grassroots movements started in our own backyard. Organizations like Iqra Fund, Central Asia Institute, Big Sky Women in Action and Big Sky Youth Empowerment have raised money from people who share their concerns and have made a significant difference in a smaller scale. Haven, located in Bozeman, has provided services for women and families in this region who’ve been victims of domestic abuse—an invaluable service.

There is great opportunity here. Grassroots organizations could be created to address many issues that face Montanans today. Access to health care is limited for rural residents in the northeastern part of the state. Citizens in Libby battle a deadly asbestos-related disease. Wastewater treatment is a challenge on the reservations. These are just a few examples that could be addressed by philanthropic organizations.

Take some time to learn about non-governmental and nonprofit organizations addressing issues that are important to you. These organizations rely on community and social involvement to achieve their goals. A financial contribution can make a positive impact in our local, national and global society. If you’re particularly passionate about a specific issue, get involved! Volunteering is often more effective than a contribution and can be very rewarding.

Imagine the problems that could be solved locally and globally if everyone pitched in to improve our world.

Erin A. Bills, MPH, works with the Montana Office of Rural Health/Area Health Education Center at MSU. She lives in Big Sky and is dedicated to improving the health of Montana’s rural populations by developing effective preventive health policy. Follow her blog at

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