Register as a charity

What is a charity?

The law defines what a charity is, not the Charity Commission.

There is a legal definition of what a charity is, and your organisation may be charitable in the eyes of the law, even if you don’t think of yourselves as a charity.

Registering your organisation with the Charity Commission doesn’t make your group a charity – in fact, in order to register, you already need to be a charity.

So what is it that makes your organisation charitable? 

There are three things that the law looks for.  First, your organisation needs to be for the public benefit.  Second, your organisation’s aims need to be charitable, according to the legal definition.  Third, your work needs to be not-for-profit, with any profits being reinvested in the organisation’s work, and not going to the people running the charity. 

Charity registration

Not every charity needs to register with the Charity Commission – and not all are allowed to register, even if they want to.

Many people who run a charity think that they have to register with the Charity Commission, or that they need to have a registered charity number in order to carry out charitable work, or to raise funds.  But this isn’t the case – in fact, over half of the UK’s 500,000 charities are not registered with the Charity Commission. 

So what decides whether a charity needs to register or not?

It’s often to do with income.  Larger charities, with an income of £5,000 or more are required by law to register (although there are no financial penalties if they don’t).  Smaller charities, with an income of less than £5,000, are not allowed to register, even if they want to. 

The benefits of charity registration

Registering with the Charity Commission makes fundraising easier – and can give the public greater confidence in your organisation.

Registering with the Charity Commission offers three main benefits:

  1. Many grant funders only make grants for registered charities, so by registering you become eligible for a wider range of grant funding. 
  2. Registration shows the general public that your organisation is legitimate, and is being supervised by the Charity Commission.
  3. As a registered charity, you can get tax relief and reduced business rates on your premises (if they are used solely, or mostly for charitable activities).

Registered charities have extra responsibilities

Registered charities have to meet the Charity Commission’s reporting requirements, in addition to their existing legal responsibilities. 

All charities have certain legal responsibilities, whether or not they are registered with the Charity Commission.  But by registering, your charity takes on an extra responsibility to send an annual report and financial information to the Charity Commission every year.  The level of detail you are required to send depends of the size of your organisation – smaller organisations need to provide less detail than larger organisations.

How can smaller charities prove their charitable status?

Smaller charities that cannot apply to become a registered charity can apply for charitable status from HMRC.

Although the Charity Commission doesn’t register charities with an income of less than £5,000, smaller organisations can apply for tax relief and a charity number from HM Revenue and Customs.  An HMRC charity number is accepted by banks and some funders as proof of charitable status.

How to apply for registered charity status

Apply using the online form – but be prepared with all the right documents before you begin.

There is an online application process that you need to use to apply to register your organisation with the Charity Commission.  From 2012 onwards, all applications need to be made online.
You need to provide the following information with your application:

  • your charity's name
  • names and addresses of your trustees
  • proof that your charity is only going to do charitable work
  • proof that your charity will provide public benefit
  • a pdf of a governing document 
  • a pdf bank statement to prove that your yearly income will be more than £5,000
  • a pdf of a signed trustee declaration

For details and guidance on registering as a charity, visit the Charity Commission website

Voluntary Action Westminster is a registered charity (no. 1068824) and is registered as a company in England and Wales with company number 03518124.  Copyright Voluntary Action Westminster 2009

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