Charity Commission Registration - How To Start, Set Up And Register A CIO Or Charitable Company Yourself

DIY Charity Commission Registration - How to start, or set up, and register a UK charity, CIO or charitable company, at no cost, using my guide, videos and infographic, with links to all the guidance and documents you will need.

Starting A Charity - Is Charity Commission Registration The Right Choice?

Most people seem to want to register a charity, with the Charity Commission, but it can be a very time consuming process, there are a number of options and, often, registering a charity isn't the best.  This toolkit will help you to decide which type of organisation would be best for you.  

Equally, if a registered charity is the right choice for you, whilst the vast majority of people opt for a CIO, it's not the only option. To help you decide, watch my video (3 mins) on choosing the right charity structure, which explains the most common options and the advantages and disadvantages of each. Alternatively, I've summarised these in this infographic.

If You Need Some Registration Help

I provide a friendly, low cost registration service.  If you're submitting your own application I can review this before submission, or support you in responding to the inevitable Charity Commission queries, or in challenging a Commission decision.  I’ve never failed to register a charity/CIC and 100% of fees are used to help fund Charity Excellence.  Details here

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Setting Up a Charity - Charity Registration Things To Get Right

The Commission requires a large amount of information, but it focusses very closely on some issues, which you'll want to get right.

  • Purposes.  There are 13 charitable purposes, but what is defined as charitable is narrower than these broad headings, so make sure that what you plan to do falls within these definitions.  
  • Objects - in your constitution, define what your charity does.  The more objects you have, the more they will ask you - the more to go wrong. 
    • I try to have as few as possible and to keep these clear and specific. 'Helping our community' isn't - what do you mean by 'helping' and who are your 'community'?  Instead, you might use 'To alleviate poverty in Aston Clinton by making grants'.  
    • It can be a good idea to modify one of the Commission's examples, or one of an already registered charity doing similar work to you - because you can be confident that they are happy with these.  If you don't know any similar charities, you can search the Commission's register.  Click the Governing Document link, in any entry, for the charity's objects. 
  • Public Benefit - there are 2 relevant aspects. 
    • Firstly, your activities must be available to a reasonable section of the public.  This isn't usually a problem but, if you do restrict access, such as for women only, you will be required to justify this - here's what you need
    • Secondly, any benefit to trustees, must be incidental.  The Commission is extremely focussed on any potential for benefit and this often causes people problems.
      • There must be at least 2 unconflicted trustees.  That is, who are not business associates or close family relations.
      • If you will employ, buy goods or services from or lease property from someone who has a relationship with a trustee/the founder, he/she must be excluded from discussion/decisions, and the details of what the trustees did in considering this and how they ensured it was in the best interests of the charity must be recorded in the minutes. 
  • Professional activities - the Commission sees advancing research, education, health etc in a professional context and will want details on qualifications, curriculum etc. If you're delivering these professionally that's fine.  However, if you're not, using 'promoting' or 'raising public awareness' in your objects, might be a better option.   

They want to see that you have all necessary processes and controls in place and evidence.  Give them the detail needed.  If you write one sentence in a box, it probably isn't enough.  If someone is an expert in an area, you work with statutory authorities/expert charities, have adopted standards or work to some quality framework, or similar mention that, as it evidences your work. Uploading policies, such as safeguarding and grant making (if applicable) can be helpful.

Future Proofing Your Charity Commission Registration Application

What the trustees choose to do within their objects is largely up to them, as long as they don't unreasonably exclude people, but you can't do anything outside your objects.  Make sure you take into account what you might be doing in a year or 2, when your charity has become a real success.  If you don't, you might need Commission approval to amend your objects.  Here are some ideas:

  • If your object is to provide 'football for young people in London', you won't be able to provide any other sport, to anyone other than young people, or anywhere other than London.   
    • An alternative might be 'advancing sport for young people in SE England'.
  • If you're clear on what you will be doing, but want a bit of leeway, you might include 'primarily, but not exclusively'. 
  • Another option is to include 'such other means as the trustees determine'.

Converting A CIC To A Foundation CIO Charity

You can convert a CIC Limited By Gurantee to a Foundation CIO. You will need a resolution to convert you CIC to a CIO, to adopt the proposed constitution of the CIO and a resolution adopting the proposed constitution of the CIO.

Before You Start Your Online Charity Registration

The Commission requires a very large amount of detailed information, so it's a good idea to get everything together before you start.

The system times-out after a period, but doesn't tell you and allows you to keep entering data, which you then lose when you try to save.  Done that.  If you go for a cup of tea, always save before you do. 

Starting A Charity - Governing Document

Download and complete the relevant governing document (constitution). These are long legal documents, but almost everything is standard text.  You’ll need to make decisions on a range of issues, such as your charity's name, objects (purposes), trustee types and numbers, the names of the 1st trustees and liability.  The options include ex officio and appointed trustees.  This is when you give another organisation the right to appoint one or more trustees - very rarely applies, so usually people just delete these sections.   

However, the key issue is your objects(s). This is what your charity aims to do and the Commission takes these extremely seriously, so spend time and effort on this. You can have one or more, but these must be exclusively charitable. Fundraising is not a charitable object, so don't include it.  The more objects you have, the more complex the information required will be and the greater the opportunity for the Commission to find fault. Don't include activities, such as research, education or health, unless you deliver these in a professional capacity.  If you bring in speakers for workshops, signpost people, or similar, using 'Promoting' or 'Raising public awareness' can work better.   

Your object(s) should describe the outcomes you are seeking, how you will do this, where and who will benefit. My short video (4 mins) will give you everything you need to do this well and here's the Commission's guidance and some examples.

Starting Your Charity - Name

Check that your charity’s name hasn’t been used by another and is allowable, and you now also have to check this with Companies House. For CIOs, you also need to check with Companies House for sensitive names, including fund, federation, friendly society, and co-operative and anything vaguely Government(ish), regulatory or Royal.  If you use a sensitive name, the Commission may require a letter of non-objection; best avoided, unless it's important to you. 

There's a check function in the online application form for your name, but it doesn't really work, so best to do it yourself to be sure.

If your name is something that might be trademarked, you may wish to check this here. For example, Golf Charity Cup is trademarked and there are 86 pages of others with 'Charity' in the title.

Setting Up Your Charity - Trustees

You will need to upload substantial information about your trustees. Aim for a minimum of 3 and maximum of 12.  If you need to recruit trustees, here's how to do it and people who will help you for free. 

Complete a trustee declaration, which has to be signed by each trustee. The Commission are incredibly pedantic about this. If you don't fully complete it, they will reject it. That includes not inserting your charity name (exactly as per the constitution) and number of trustees, or if you forget to tick the 'Working with vulnerable groups box'. My video (2 mins) on completing the form, will help you make sure you get it right.

Check that your trustees are eligible. If you work with vulnerable people, they will also have to sign that they understand their safeguarding responsibilities and you'll need DBS checks.

All The Other Registration Material

There’s a lot of other specific information required, so read this Q&A before you begin. You will also be asked for information about the specific activities you will be undertaking, such as education, religion, research, sport and human rights.

The Commission publishes guidance on its website. However, the site is notoriously user unfriendly, so you'll need to put a bit of effort in to find what you're looking for. You can find links to most of the publications here.

Charity Commission Registration Uploads

You will have to upload your governing document (constitution) and trustee declaration. If you have a business plan, brochures or similar, that can help, but make sure these don't include material that conflicts with your application.  All uploads have to be in pdf format and no larger than 25MB.

You can also upload policies. I would certainly suggest safeguarding and grant making, if applicable.  If you need, but don't have these, ask a sister charity if you could use theirs.  Or consult Mr Google.

Uploading relevant policies, can be a very good way to significantly strengthen your application.  Take the questions asked, turn these into requirements and include them in the policy.  You can further underpin this by including any relevant quality standards or frameworks.  For example, my animal welfare policy, includes all of the requirements in the application questions, plus the Animal Welfare Act, and DEFRA and RSPCA welfare standards.  Than ticks all the Charity Commission's boxes for them.  You can do this with most aspects of your application.  When filling in your application, use what's in your policies to answer the questions.  

Yuk, you're creating work and turning us into a bureaucracy!  Nope. These are minimum standards and any good charity will work to far higher.  It just translates what you do into evidence that will keep the Commission happy.   

Submitting Your Charity Registration Application

Register with the Commission’s online portal. There is no fee to register a charity.  This familiarisation video (4 mins) shows you how to use it and the key things to watch out for. 

There are 24 screens to complete, but the system will generate additional specialist questions based on your activities. Here are the main sections.

  1. Introduction - lists the uploads that you (may) have to submit.
  2. About Your Charity - governing document, replacing existing charity (or not), charity name and structure.
  3. Classification - what areas you work in, how you deliver your services, who you do this for and where you do it. If you work overseas, this will include listing each country.  The more options you click, the more questions you may get.  See the advice above on things to get right. 
  4. Public Benefits - various sections. How you do what you do, the benefits this creates and how you decide what to do. If applicable, grant making, membership and any fees charged. If you need it, you can find supplementary guidance on public benefit for religion, education and poverty here.
  5. Property - do you own, or have use of property and what it's used for. If you have a lease, or other agreement, you will be required to upload a copy.
  6. Contact Information - for whoever is submitting, the contact at the charity and the charity organisation to include role, address, e mail, phone number and website, as applicable. The charity's contact information will be publicly available.
  7. Regulators - select any applicable, plus HMRC Gift Aid number, if you have one. If you have a regulator, you will need to enter your regulator number; most don't.
  8. Finance - accounts (optional), estimated gross annual income and income year to date, bank account details (if you have one), financial year-end date, sources of income, tax issues.
  9. Connections - links to a trustee, or the founder, or any organisation connected to them - employment, goods/services, benefits, links to non-charitable organisations. Having links doesn't mean you won't be registered, but the Commission will be very interested in this. You need to explain how this will be managed effectively. 
  10. Trustee Details - safeguarding, trustee numbers and details of individual trustees - names, previous names, addresses, e mails, phone numbers, dates of birth. Uploading a safeguarding policy is recommended, if you work with vulnerable people.
  11. Declaration - attach any additional information, advise Commission of any additional information you wish them to take into account. Your certification regards accuracy and approval by all trustees. It's a criminal offence under section 60 of the Charities Act 2011 for anyone to knowingly or recklessly provide false or misleading information to the Commission; this includes suppressing, concealing or destroying documents.

You won't be able to change your application once you've submitted it, so check it over before you do.  There's a spell checker (top right), but it's fairly awful.  You can also download a copy of your application, using Print (again top right)

Once You've Submitted Your Charity Registration

On Submission.  You'll receive an e mail with a pdf copy of your application. A copy of this will also be emailed to the contact for the organisation and each trustee. Hang onto this, as it contains information you'll need to register with HMRC.

The Commission's Response.  Usually within a few weeks, although I have had one application back in a day.  However, it can also take much longer.  If you receive an e mail advising that your application will need to be considered by a specialist that usually takes a couple of months. 

More Questions.  Once you get a response you will almost certainly be asked even more questions.  The Commission is quick to say what it doesn't like, but not what it does want.  If you don't understand it, go back to them saying that and asking them to advise you specifically what it is they want from you.  If you submit something to them, it can be helpful to add that, if they don't feel it meets their requirements to register your charity, you'd be grateful for their expert advice on what changes they wish to be made that would.  

Don't give up, because you're nearly there. Give them what they ask for and you should receive your registration number. 

Say Thank You.  Send them a thank you e mail.  None of us say thank you nearly often enough. 

What You Can Do If Your Registration Is Refused By The Charity Commission

If the Commission refuse your registration you have a number of options to challenge this and to obtain further information to help you.  This CEF resource details what these are and how to do so, with links to all the guidance and help you may need.  

How Long Does Charity Registration Take?

In my experience, it's a bit of a lottery.  I've had a charity registered in a day, but it can take many months.  In general it take a few weeks, but can take longer, particularly if your case is complex, or includes issues the Commission tends to focus on.  For example, a founder/trustee being paid, or a relationship with another organisation, such as an overseas NGO, or commercial company.

Here are some facts and figures from the Commission's Jul 21 annual report that you might use:

The Commission’s target to make a registration decision is 30 days. Infographic, page 11. 

Decide registration, permission and advice requests within 30 working days.  We decided 86% of all requests within 30 working days.

Part 2b, Performance Analysis, page 9. 

... we have reduced the average time to register all charities to 45 working days from 65 working days in 2019-20. Excluding the highest risk registration applications, we make decisions within 39 working days compared to 57 working days in 2019-20. 

If your application is refused and you submit a Decision Review, there doesn't appear to be a set number of days to complete this.  However, its guidance to its staff on managing this does include (OG 736- 1, B1.7). 

The timescales for conducting a decision review are very tight. If you are asked to participate in a decision review, it needs to be one of your top priorities. 

Setting Up Your Charity - Don’t Forget HMRC Registration

Having done all that hard work, make sure you can claim those lovely tax reliefs by registering with HMRC. Last year, the sector failed to claim £600m in Gift Aid alone and that's only one of the many available.

When you're ready, read my Part 3 guide on how to register with HMRC. Here are the charitable tax reliefs you can potentially claim, with links to the resources you'll need and here's my guide to the various types of Gift Aid and how to claim these. To register, you'll need a bank account. if you don't have one, here's my guide to opening a free charity bank account.

Lots More Free Resources To Help You Start & Set Up Your Charity

For more lots more resources to help you make your charity a success, visit Start-up Toolbox in the Resource Hub.  Better still, join the Charity Excellence Framework.

Find funders using the Funding Finder database and 50+ funder lists.  Health check your charity in half a day, access the huge resource base, including 100s of organisations that provide free help and resources, and achieve the Quality Mark.

Fast, Simple And Everything Is Free.

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This article is only for general interest only and does not constitute professional legal advice.  I'm not a lawyer, so not able to provide this. If you need professional advice, you can find links to pro bono legal support on the Free Goods & Services page. 

The questions are phrased brilliantly - challenging how we prioritise our management time." Ecosystems Knowledge Network

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