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The International Charitable Nonprofit Subsector in the United States

International Understanding, International Development and Assistance, and International Affairs

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Document date: January 20, 2006
Released online: January 20, 2006

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

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International organizations are a growing part of the U.S. nonprofit sector and play a vital role here and abroad connecting Americans to the world and the world to Americans. Whether arranging international student exchanges, assisting victims of foreign disasters, or influencing policy between nations, international nonprofits based in the United States are expanding the interaction of Americans with people, places, and ideas from around the world. They contribute to, and are shaped by, the globalization that is redefining the world in which we live.

International charitable organizations make up only 2 percent of organizations and 2 percent of revenue of the charitable nonprofit sector in the United States, but their influence both at home and abroad is far-reaching in three areas addressed by this study: international understanding, international development and relief assistance, and international affairs. They provide important humanitarian aid, secure financial support for institutions and causes abroad, build cross-national understanding through the international exchange of ideas and people, and conduct research for policy development on foreign policy, trade, security, and other issues with global consequences. International organizations are also part of a global activist agenda that includes human rights, women's rights, workers' rights, AIDS, environmental protection, and other transnational issues.

The expanding roles of international nonprofits in democratic governance, civic participation, bilateral and multilateral policy, and development and relief can be attributed to a number of different factors. Human and environmental consequences of natural and man-made disasters, unrelenting poverty and famine, disease, and war demand a response by voluntary organizations with the commitment and resources to address pressing needs. The porosity of national borders, the movement of people worldwide, and communication technologies that permit an easy exchange of ideas, fundraising, and coordinated action are aspects of globalization important to the operation of international nonprofits. Also significant are increases in the numbers of civil society institutions here and abroad, the power of public opinion, growing dissatisfaction with traditional state bureaucratic institutions, and the government's interest in decentralized action carried out through nongovernmental organizations and in establishing democratic practices around the world.

Despite their increasing importance, international nonprofits have largely been understudied as a subsector of the U.S. nonprofit sector. No comprehensive directory of international organizations describing their scope, programs, and financial capacity to fulfill international missions is available. Some data on international nonprofits are collected by government agencies, though this information is generally limited to a select group of nonprofits that have contract or grant relationships with federal agencies. Loose and diverse definitions of international organizations, lack of a comprehensive and mandatory reporting system for international organizations, and the rapid increase in number of organizations operating internationa lly also contribute to the difficulty of compiling a useful directory. Without comprehensive organizational data, researchers and government officials have been hard pressed to provide even an approximate picture of the capacity and contribution of the U.S. international nonprofit subsector as a whole.

This monograph addresses some of the shortcomings in current literature and data by providing the first systematic look at the international nonprofit subsector in the United States using descriptive statistics and data obtained from the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS) at the Urban Institute. These data comprise organizations that filed Form 990s with the Internal Revenue Service and represent the most complete and comprehensive nonprofit data available for a large-scale study profiling the U.S. international subsector and its major areas of operation. The monograph provides a snapshot of the size and finances of the international nonprofit subsector in FY 2003 and assesses financial health in each area of operation to provide an approximate picture of the infrastructure and capacity of the international subsector to mobilize public and private resources for international purposes. The monograph also points out recent changes in the growth and finances of the subsector from FY 2001 to FY 2003 that may be of consequence in the future.

The study uses terms that are new to many readers. The nonprofit sector generally refers to all formally organized U.S. tax-exempt organizations, though the NCCS data used in this study are limited to charitable tax-exempt organizations. The international nonprofit subsector refers to U.S.-based charitable organizations whose primary purpose or mission is international in scope. International organizations were sorted into three major categories: international affairs, international understanding, and international development and assistance. Subcategories were created that further refine more specific organizational purposes within these major categories. Table 1 shows the categories and subcategories in the classification system used for this study.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

Topics/Tags: | International Issues | Nonprofits

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