Guidance on charitable purposes

To be a charity an organisation must have purposes or ('aims') all of which are exclusively charitable; a charity cannot have some purposes which are charitable and others which are not. Find out more about charitable purposes.

About charitable purposes

The Charities Act 2011 defines a charitable purpose, explicitly, as one that falls within the following list of thirteen descriptions of purposes and is for the public benefit.

The pages below bring together our guidance, reports, key decisions and other resources that help explain the scope of each of these descriptions of purposes and the sorts of charitable activity that might fall within each one.

What are 'descriptions of purposes'?

The list of ‘descriptions of purposes’ in the Charities Act 2011 describe broad areas of potentially charitable activity.

Each item listed is a description or "head" of charity rather than a fully-stated charitable purpose in itself. Under each of the descriptions lie a range of purposes, all of which fit the description, but each of which is a different purpose in its own right. The list of descriptions, taken as a whole with the purposes that underlie each description, encompasses everything that has, or may be, recognised as charitable in England and Wales.

There is no automatic presumption that an organisation with a stated aim that falls within one of the descriptions of purposes is charitable. To be a 'charitable purpose' it must be for the public benefit. This has to be demonstrated in each case.

In some cases, a charity may wish to adopt the wording of one of the descriptions of purposes as its stated aim. That may be acceptable where it is clear that what is being advanced is a charitable purpose for the public benefit.

However, in many cases, the wording used in these broad descriptions of purposes can have more than one meaning, and not all of those meanings are purposes that the law has recognised as charitable. In some cases, the wording used may not make it sufficiently clear what the organisation has been set up to do. Where that is the case, further clarification may need to be added to ensure that the purpose that is to be advanced is one that is exclusively, and unambiguously, charitable. We will consider each case on its own merits.

Charities advancing general charitable purposes

Charity Bank Consideration of an application for charitable status by an organisation with objects to promote general charitable purposes

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Other related material

The review of the register of charities (RR1) Gives the background to the Review of the Register of Charities and explains the characteristics determining charitable status.

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Maintenance of an accurate register of charities (RR6) Summarises the steps we willl take when the register is not an accurate record of those institutions which have charitable status.

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Independence of charities from the state (RR7) Summarises the Charity Commission’s views on the extent to which charities are required by law to be independent of the State.

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Trafford Community Leisure Trust and Wigan Leisure and Culture Trust Review of two separate decisions regarding applications for charitable status

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