NGOs become a sector
To define the NGO in universal terms is difficult. Yet, everyone within the sector and those who are familiar with its preoccupations, have an understanding of what this sector is, who is in and who is out. To each its own definition, based on its own preoccupation.

The form of institution most often chosen for the NGO is the Society- that amorphously democratic structure which has members electing and monitoring the activities of a Board or Committee of Management, which in turn supervises the functioning of an executive officer or director. Often, the executive officer chooses and controls the Board and the General Body. This is both the strength and the weakness of the structure.

Other forms commonly chosen are the Trust and the non-profit company. Apart from these, there are unions, cooperatives and associations that are membership based.

Non-formal forms of NGOs are campaigns, networks, common action programmes and federations. They are also associational in nature and membership driven. Not all of them register formally. Those who do, choose an institutional form like the society, union, cooperative, according to the nature of their constituents.

Coming back to the issue of definition, the term NGO traditionally referred to social welfare organisations including the Lions Club or Rotary. Later, the term included action groups. These groups needed a formal structure to administer their funds and therefore registered under the Societies' Registration Act or Public Trusts Act. This also enabled them to receive foreign funds from the few European agencies that poured in considerable amounts into organisation work in the early eighties. Meanwhile, the government promulgated the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act, and since many action groups received funds from foreign donor agencies, they all came under the new law. From the mid-eighties, the government also started using these organisations to implement development programmes, first through CAPART, and then, through the programmes of various social welfare ministries. the term NGO became increasingly associated with organisations `contracting development programmes'. Small groups grew in size, finances and visibility. The result was the emergence of an NGO sector.

Siddhartha Sen, The Non-Profit Sector in India; Helmut K Anheier and Lester M Salamon, The Non-Profit Sector in the Developing World.[R.Q40.687]. 
Part I - Historical background: Unlike other essays, this chapter describes the development of voluntary organisations in India from Pre-colonial days in five major historical periods: 
  • Pre-Colonial (1500 BC to late AD 1700)
  • Mid- to late colonial (1810 to 1947)
  • Early post-independence (1947 to the late 1950s)
  • The sixties and seventies
  • The eighties and nineties
Part II - Legal Issues: Five types of organisations: 
a society registered under the Socities' Registration Act of 1860; 
  • a trust registered either under the Indian Trust Act of 1882 or the Charitable and Religious Trust Act of 1920; 
  • a co-operative under the Co-operative Societies Act of 1904;
  • a trade union under the Trade Union Act of 1926; and 
  • a company under Section 25 of the Companies Act of 1956.
Other parts contain detailed chapters on growth of the voluntary sector, development of government policy and the nature of funding over the years. 
From CAPART there was the pressure of setting norms and standards, including an attempt to develop a `Code of Conduct'. The foreign donors sought increasing `professionalisation' and systems of monitoring, evaluation and assessment of impact. From within the sector itself, there is an attempt to standardise the notion of an NGO or Voluntary Organisation. A few apex organisations have sought to evolve laws to cover NGOs, while others are working out `guiding principles' in the name of increasing transparency and good governance.
Anubhav, Vol I. No.1, April 1997 characterises the History of the Voluntary Movement in India: 
  • Age of Social Reforms (1800-1900)
  • Socio-Political Awakening (1900-1946)
  • Post-Independence Era of Nation-Building (1947-1960)
  • Period of Concerted and Diverted Voluntary Action (1960-1980)
  • VOs Facing...New Economic Policy, Liberalisation/Globalisation (1980-1990)
Further readings 

KK Mukherjee, Emerging Societal Changes and Voluntary Organisations: Challenges and Responses. Gram Niyojan Kendra, Ghaziabad,1994. [R.Q45.609]. Contains a four-page history of organisations during the British period and an appendix briefly describing rural development, experiments of the Pre-Independence period, like the Sriniketan experiment.  

Society for Participatory Research in Asia, Strengthening the Grass-roots: Nature and Role of Support Organisations. PRIA, New Delhi, October, 1990. [R.Q43.600].  

John D'Souza, Mid-life Crisis: Stray Thoughts on NGOs. Voices. Vol.1.No.1.1997. [J.Q40.1997VOI16].  
Voluntary Action Network India, Report of the Task-Forces to Review and Simplify Acts, Rules, Procedures Affecting Voluntary Organisations. VANI, New Delhi, 1994. [R.Q40.655]. 

A PRIA Booklet 
gives us the Following Description of 
the Phases of Voluntary action: 

Phase One: The first half of the nineteenth century (1800-1850) in Indian history was marked by the initiation of the social reform movements. 

Phase Two: The landmark of the second half of the nineteenth century was the failure of what is known as `first war of independence' in 1857 and its implications on the socio-political milieu... During this phase (1850-1900), spread of nationalist consciouness and self-help emerged as the primary focus of socio-political movements and influenced the future course of voluntary action. 

Phase Three: (1900-1947): The major factor in the history of this phase which influenced voluntary action was the successful attempt to channelise the voluntary spirit into political action and mass mobilisation for the struggle for Independence. 

Phase Four: (until the mid-sixties): Many in the stream of social reform-based voluntary action and the stream of constructive work joined the government in nation-building. 

Phase Five: (until  the mid-seventieis): Despite its professed aim of carrying out elaborate developmental and welfare functions, the elected government during this period was able to establish only a token administrative presence at the village level. The contradictions between the rich and the poor, and

the divide between the urban and rural had increased during the previous twenty years of Independence. By the late 1960s. India was caught up in a dual crisis of economic stagnation and political instability. 

It was at this stage that alternative and integrated rural development began to be experimented with, through the initiatives taken by a new generation of people in 1968-69. 

Phase Six: (late seventies) This was the period when ideas about conscientisation and people's participation began to emerge. It was the period when more focussed work with target groups, landless labour, tribals, small farmers, women, scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, dalits etc., also became the basis for the programme of work of Voluntary Organisatgions. With the growth in number and scope of voluntary agencies, sectoral specialisation in health, agriculture, education, literacy, etc., also gained momentum during this period. 

Phase Seven: The phase of the eighties witnessed a growth in voluntary action at other levels, in the form of support organisations specialising in training, research, advocacy, documentation, legal aid, etc. Issues like women's development, environment, forestry, etc., began to gain significance. 

Society for Participatory Research in Asia, Voluntary Development Organisations in India: A Study of History, Roles and Future Challenges. PRIA, New Delhi. November, 1991.[R.Q40.18].