Take some time to do some planning before you go ahead and start a charity – it will help you achieving your goals and identify 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 Charity Register to find registered charities that you could support or work with on a project. There are also other not-for-profit resources you can search online.
There are benefits that come with registration (such as charity tax concessions), 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 will help you work out how you should set it up. Ask:
- What will the charity try to achieve?
- What will its main activities be?
- What programs or services will it provide?
- Who is its target audience?
- Who will benefit from its activities and programs?
- Why is there a need for this new charity?
- How long will it 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 organisation's purposes will affect the charity subtypes that it 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. Questions to consider:
- Do you have any money or other resources?
- What assets will you need? (For example, a physical location, equipment, vehicles)
- What ongoing costs will there be? (For example, utilities, rent, licences, insurance, salaries)
- How will you raise money?
- Will you need an 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
- public appeals, including door-knocking, public collections, social media and letter campaigns
- events such as conferences, movie nights or fun runs
- public auctions
- selling goods or services.
The ACNC does not regulate fundraising or gaming activities (such as raffles). These activities are regulated by:
- state and territory laws
- corporations and consumer laws.
Find out more information on fundraising by contacting the state or territory regulator in the state or territory you want 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. Read more about the risks of sending money overseas in our factsheet on operating overseas.
Understand the importance of legal structure
The legal structure you choose should meet your charity’s needs now and into the future. Charities have a range of structures, incorporated or unincorporated, and there may be more than one that works for your charity. 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 to government agencies.
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.
Before deciding on the legal structure you think is best for your charity, consider:
- the likely size of the charity, and how complex its activities will be
- whether it will have employees or volunteers
- the accountability it 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 the charity will be applying for government grants
- whether it will operate in more than one state or territory, or even overseas
- the tax concessions it will seek.
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).
The most commonly used incorporated legal structures for charities 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’.
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 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.
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. Questions to ask:
- Where will the charity operate? Will it operate - including fundraising - in multiple states or territories?
- Will it 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
Thinking about the way the charity will be managed is important. It may affect the legal structure that you choose for the charity and will help you focus on the resources you will need. Questions to ask:
- Does the charity need a governing body, such as a board or committee, or trustees?
- What kind of governance (rules, practices) will the charity have?
- Will the charity have formal processes for things like meetings, making and changing rules, or other decisions?
- Where will the charity operate from? For example, a dedicated shop front, a home office, or a shared spaced with another organisation?
Plan how to promote your charity and its work
Consider the kind of involvement you would like from the public and potential investors or donors. Also consider how you will communicate the charity's goals and activities. Questions to ask:
- How will you promote the charity and encourage people to get involved?
- How will you get information out to your target audience?
- What are the main ways that you can publicise information?
- Will you need a website or other communication tools for the charity?
Visit the resources linked on this page to help you prepare to register your organisation as a charity, and to understand your obligations to the ACNC and other Commonwealth, state and local regulators.
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.