How To Register And Set Up A UK Charity - Setting Up at No Cost

How To Register And Set Up A UK Charity at No Cost. Setting Up A Charity Made Simple - a Step By Step Guide to Registration

How To Register And Set Up A UK Charity - Setting Up Made Simple

A step-by-step guide on how to register and set up a UK charity CIO.  Registering a charity may seem complex but this practical guide to registration and setting up a charity, makes it easy, even if you've no money.  It has links to my videos and everything else you'll need to become a registered charity with the Charity Commission.

If you want help on any aspect of how to start a charity, click the AI Bunny icon in the bottom right of your screen and ask it short questions, including key words.  It can help with anything to do with setting up a charity, including finding funding and how to download the policies you will need to register with the Charity Commission.

Setting Up A UK Charity - Is Deciding to Register a Charity the Right Choice?

Is setting up a charity the best choice?  Most people seem to want to register a charity, but it can be a very time consuming process, there are a number of options and, often, deciding to register a charity isn't the best.  This toolkit will help you to decide which type of non profit or charity to set up.

The different types of charity.  If you do choose to set up a charity, it can either be unregistered (unincorporated association) or registered with the relevant UK charity regulator - Charity Commission, OSCR (Scotland) or CCNI (Northern Ireland).  In the past, there were 2 choices, but the Charities Act 2006 introduced Charitable Incorporated Organisations (CIOs), of which there are 2 types.  In Scotland, these are known as SCIOs and are a bit different.

  • Charitable companies are registered with Companies House and the Charity Commission.
  • Charitable Trusts are registered with the Charity Commission.
  • Foundation and Association model CIOs are registered with the Charity Commission.

Which is the best choice?  It's only my opinion and I'm not a lawyer, but this is what I think:

  • The majority of charities are charitable companies, because these have been around for a long time, but in some circumstances they may well be the best choice.
  • Almost nobody registers charitable trusts any longer, because they are unincorporated, so you have no limited liability cover.
  • Almost everyone chooses a Foundation CIO, because it's slightly simpler to run than an Association CIO but.
  • An Association CIO can be a good choice, if you want members to be actively involved, as they have voting rights.

In the UK a charitable foundation isn't a legal structure, but tends to be a charity 'founded' by a company or individual, although it's basically just a name, so you can call your charity a foundation, if you wish to.

How do I decide?  If you're happy that a registered charity is the right choice for you, whilst the vast majority of people opt for a CIO, it's not always the best 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.

Finally, almost no-one will recommend an unregistered charity to you, because they can't make any money out of you.  However, they're really quick and easy to set up, and there are an estimated 100,000 in the UK.  If you're just starting out and not sure where it'll go or you don't expect to secure more than £5000 pa, it can be the best choice.  Here's my toolkit.

How to Start a Charity Successfully - Everything You Need

Listed below is just some of our free support, but you also have our AI bunnies with you every step of the way in setting up your charity.  Just click the icon in the bottom right of any screen and tell it what you need - help with charity registration, finding funding, advice, expert free support, resources, guides, data, raffle prizes, whatever.   Available 24/7, they'll go and get you what you need.

The non profit set up toolbox gives you everything you need to set up and register your charity and make it a success.  Plus funding is almost always the biggest challenge.  Use Funding Finder, to find a huge range of grants and Help Finder to find lots of free fundraising support and also companies that make product/financial donations. There's also a fundraising online health check, with 100+downloadable funder lists, and free policies, which you'll need.

Quick, simple and very effective.

Find Funding, Free Help & Resources - Everything Is Free.

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How To Register a UK Charity - Registration Things To Get Right

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

  • 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 Application to Start a Charity

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 Guarantee 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.

How To Set Up 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.

How To Set Up a Charity - Choosing a Name

How to check, choose and register a charity name, including the rules and regulations from each regulator.

How To Register a 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 trusteeshere's how to do it and people who will help you for free.  There must be at least 2 'unconflicted' trustees.  For example, if you and your partner or a business associate will be trustees, you will need at least 2 others, bringing the number of trustees to 4.

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.

How To Start a Charity - Other Information

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.

Register a Charity - Charity Commission 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 always include safeguarding, if you work with children or vulnerable adults and, if a grant maker, a grant making policy.  Here's my index of online policies, which include both. You can download the full versions in Word format from the relevant questionnaires. For these 2 that's the People and Income health check questionnaires.  Amend these to meet your needs.  Register here.  Everything is free.

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.  That 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 higher.  It just translates what you do into evidence that will keep the Commission happy.

Submitting Your Application To Register A Charity

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 Application to Register a Charity is Refused

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 it Take to Register a Charity?

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.  My own charity took 23 months and was only registered once I took them to the 1st Tier (Charity) Tribunal.

Here's an extract from the Charity Commission Annual report 2021/22, under the Performance Analysis section.  In my experience, if I get lucky it can be about a month, but its usually something like 3 months and can be a lot longer.

We aim to assess and provide an initial response to applications for registration, permissions and requests for advice within 10 working days We assessed and responded to 96% of applications within 10 working days We assessed and responded to 99% of applications within 10 working days
We aim to decide registration, permission and advice requests within 30 working days We decided 80% of all requests within 30 working days We decided 86% of all requests within 30 working days

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. 

How To Set Up A 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.

How much does it cost to register a UK charity?

There is no Charity Commission fee to set up a UK charity but expect to pay about £1000 or more for someone to do it for you, although some may charge significantly more.  Always shop around and ask for the company to disclose all costs, including things like VAT and any additional fees, such as providing policies.  Also check what the service includes.  The Commission almost always come back with additional questions and you may need to submit a Decision Review to appeal, if your initial application to set up your charity is not accepted.

Lots More Free Resources To Help You Set Up A 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 free Charity Excellence Framework, which works for even the smallest charity.  A registered charity ourselves, we provide 8 online health checks, the huge information hub, Quality Mark and 3 online directories.

  • Funding Finder - click through to more funders than any other grants directory, categories for Crisis Funding, Core Funding and Small Charities & Community Groups and 50+ downloadable grant lists.
  • Help Finder – find advice, pro bono support and free services and products, including lots of free fundraising support and companies that make product/financial donations.
  • Data Finder - finds data for funding bids, fundraising research, impact reporting, planning and campaigning.

Quick, simple and very effective. Nearly half our ratings are 10/10.

Find Funding, Free Help & Resources - Everything Is Free.

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To access help and resources on anything to do with running a charity, including funding, click the AI Bunny icon in the bottom right of your screen and ask it short questions, including key words.  Register, then login and the in-system AI Bunny is able to write funding bids and download 40+ charity policy templates as well.

Charity Set Up FAQs

  • How much does it cost to register a UK charity. There is no Charity Commission fee to set up a UK charity but expect to pay about £1000 or more for someone to do it for you.
  • How much income do you need to register as a charity? To register a charitable trust or company you need income of £5000 or a grant offer of this amount.  You do not need any income to register a CIO.
  • How long does it take to register a UK charity?   Plan for 4 months to register your charity.  One month to pull together all the information and write your application and 3 months for it to be approved, although it can be much quicker or take even longer.
  • What are the different types of charity?  The 4 legal forms for registered charities are a charitable trust, charitable company, Foundation Model CIO and an Association Model CIO.
  • What’s the best charity structure?  The vast majority opt for a Foundation CIO, although there are circumstances when a charitable company or Association CIO might be best.
  • What does it mean if a charity is incorporated?  An incorporated charity is is a legal entity with a separate identity from the trustees who run it, which gives them greater protection from being personally liable.
  • Which charities are incorporated?  Charitable companies and CIOs are incorporated, which gives their trustees limited liability protection.
  • Why would you register as a charity?  Registered charities are the best type of non profit for fundraising and there are significant charitable tax benefits in being a registered charity.
  • Can I run a charity without registering?  You can set up an unregistered charity by creating an unincorporated association but you must register if your annual income reaches £5000.
  • What charities are exempt from registration?  Exempt charities are largely institutions of further and higher education, universities, industrial and provident societies, friendly societies, or national museums, that were established by Act of Parliament or by Royal Charter.

This Guide on How to Set Up a Charity is Not Professional Advice

This guide on how to set up a UK charity is for general interest only and does not constitute professional legal or financial advice.  I'm neither a lawyer, nor an accountant, so not able to provide this. If you need professional advice, you must seek this from a professional.  To do so, register, then login and use the Help Finder directory to find pro bono legal support. Everything is free.

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