Checklist: Before you start a charity

Take some time to do some planning before you go ahead and start a charity – it will help in achieving your goals, as well as identifying possible challenges or risks. This is a list of things you'll need to consider.

Do some background research

Focus on what you want to achieve. Is setting up a new charity the best way to achieve your goals? There may be an existing charity or not-for-profit that already does what you want to do or that may take on your idea as a project that it can support.

You can search the ACNC Register to find registered charities that you could support or work on a project with. There are also other not-for-profit resources you can search for online.

There are benefits (such as the ability to apply for charity tax concessions) that come with registration, but registered charities also have ongoing obligations.

Outline your purpose

Consider and write down in detail what you want to achieve with your charity, and what your timelines are. This helps work out how you may wish to set it up. Ask:

  • What will your charity try to achieve?
  • What will its main activities be?
  • What programs or services will you provide?
  • Who is your target audience?
  • Who will benefit from the charity's activities and programs?
  • Why is there a need for this new charity?
  • How long will your charity last? Will it be for a one-off short-term project or an ongoing long-term venture?

If you want to set up a charity, make sure it only has charitable purposes. See our examples of charitable purposes. If you decide to apply to register, the purpose will affect which charity subtypes your organisation can be registered with.

Think about the resources required

Consider how much money or other resources your charity is likely to need, in starting up and ongoing costs. It may be worth getting financial and business advice.

  • Do you have any money or other resources?
  • What assets might you need, such as a physical location, equipment, vehicles?
  • What ongoing costs might you have, such as utilities, rent, licences, insurance, salaries?
  • How will you raise money?
  • Will you require ongoing income?
  • Do you need investors?
  • Do you need staff or volunteers? How many?

Consider any fundraising requirements

Charities raise money in many different ways, including:

  • charging membership fees
  • door knocks or other public appeals, including social media and letter campaigns
  • highway collections
  • events like conferences, movie nights or fun runs
  • public auctions
  • selling goods.

The ACNC does not regulate fundraising or gaming activities (such as raffles). These activities are regulated by:

  • state and territory laws that may require you to get a licence, to report or that set out how you fundraise
  • corporations and consumer laws.

Find out more information on fundraising by contacting the state or territory regulator in the state or territory you wish to raise money in. Also be aware of the risks of sending money overseas, and the obligations your charity will have to take appropriate steps to reduce these risks. You can find out more about this in the Attorney-General’s Department’s Living safely together: guide to help not-for-profits meet Australian obligations.

Understand the importance of legal structure

The legal structure you choose should meet your charity’s needs, now and, hopefully, into the future. Charities have a range of structures, incorporated or unincorporated, and there may be more than one that works for your charity. For example, charities can be incorporated under Commonwealth or state laws. Your charity's legal structure will affect many things, such as its legal identity (whether it can be sued), its governance structure (who makes what types of decisions), who is liable for its debts and its specific responsibilities, such as what its reporting or other compliance obligations are.

The ACNC does not register charities according to their legal structure, but you will be asked what your organisation's structure is (also called its 'entity type') if you apply to register with us.

Your decision on legal structure will need to take into account:

  • the likely size of your charity, and how complex its activities will be
  • whether your charity will have employees or volunteers
  • the accountability your charity will have to its members (if any) and the community
  • the potential personal liability of members or office holders for things done by them on behalf of the charity
  • whether your charity will be applying for government grants
  • whether your charity will want to operate in more than one state or territory, or even overseas
  • your charity’s eligibility for tax concessions.

The advantage of having a formal (incorporated) legal structure is that you can do things such as rent an office, borrow money, apply for government grants or take out insurance in the name of the organisation (rather than, for example, in the name of an individual committee member).

Incorporated structures

The most commonly used incorporated legal structures for charities (and other not-for-profits) include:

  • incorporated associations (the most common type) – the name will be something like ‘XYZ Incorporated’ or ‘XYZ Inc’
  • companies limited by guarantee (the next most common structure) – for example, ‘XYZ Limited’ or “XYZ Ltd’
  • non-trading co-operatives – the name must include the words ‘Cooperative’ and ‘Limited’ or ‘Ltd’, and
  • Indigenous corporations – for example, ‘XYZ Aboriginal Corporation’.

Unincorporated structures

If your charity is not incorporated, it could be a trust (for example, ‘XYZ Fund’, or ‘XYZ Foundation’) or an unincorporated association (a less formal structure, with no separate legal identity).

Consider getting professional advice

Each structure has advantages and disadvantages – it is important to balance these against your charity’s particular circumstances and plans. This is an important decision, so consider getting legal and other professional advice early, and make sure it is specific to your situation. For example, a charity may be able to be incorporated under state law rules for incorporation under a state law may still not meet ACNC requirements to be registered as a charity.

Read the ATO's guidance on different legal structures for not-for-profits.

Explore other legal and regulatory issues

There are many legal implications in setting up a charity, and it may have to comply with a wide range of laws, including Commonwealth, state and territory laws. Consider getting professional (including financial and legal) advice so you can think through your options.

  • Where will you operate? Will this be across state or territory borders?
  • Will you want to receive charity tax concessions?
  • What other legal obligations will apply (such as workplace health and safety laws, employment laws, fundraising laws)?

Decide how your charity will be managed

  • Does your charity need a governing body, such as a board or committee, or trustees?
  • What kind of governance (rules, practices) will your charity have?
  • Will you have formal processes for things like meetings, making or changing your rules or other decisions?
  • Where will you operate from, a dedicated shop front, home office, shared spaced with another organisation?

You can read more about governance in our tools and resources. If your charity is registered with the ACNC, it will also need to comply with governance standards.

Plan how to promote your charity and its work

Consider the kind of involvement you would like from the public and potential investors/donors, and how you will communicate its goals and activities.

  • How will you promote your charity and encourage people to get involved?
  • How will you get information out to your target audience?
  • What are your main ways to publicise information?
  • Will you need a website or other communication tools?

More information

Our Advice Services team can provide information to help you to apply to register your organisation as a charity and explain its obligations to the ACNC, but we cannot provide legal or other professional advice, such as on legal structure.

External resources

    • Community Door (managed by QCOSS with Queensland government funding – with multi-lingual resources about starting an organisation)

    Attention - Important information!This page contains links to external websites. Any external links used by the ACNC are inserted for convenience and do not constitute an endorsement or recommendation of any material at those sites. Information and resources provided by the ACNC is for general information only and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice regarding your charity's particular circumstances.