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Want to Make a Difference? 5 Alternatives to Starting a Registered Charity

Want to Make a Difference? 5 Alternatives to Starting a Registered Charity

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Striving to make the world a better place is a noble way to spend your working years, and becoming a registered charity is often assumed to be the only route to working towards the greater good.

Next stop: Impact!

… If only it were so easy. 

Starting a charity can be a rewarding experience, one that comes with its own advantages and obligations. And, like all good things, you’re going to have to put in some time and effort into not only getting registered but maintaining your charitable status. But did you know that starting a registered charity isn't your only - and often not your best - option for contributing to your community or advancing a cause that you care about? In this blog, we’ll take a deeper look into the differences between some of these options. 

What is a Registered Charity?

A registered charity is an organization that exclusively works to further purposes that are deemed charitable by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA): the relief of poverty, the advancement of education, the advancement of religion, and certain other purposes that benefit the community. Charities are exempt from paying income tax, and can issue tax receipts for donations they receive. 

Setting up a charity requires legwork. You’ll need to prepare documents for the incorporation and organization of your charity, as well as an application for charitable status that you will submit to the CRA. The processing time for charitable registration applications can take up to 6 months or more from receiving a complete application. 

Registered charities must also meet the following criteria, among others:

  • You operate for charitable purposes and all resources are devoted to charitable activities
  • All activities and purposes provide a tangible benefit to the public
    • People who are eligible for benefits are either the public as a whole or a significant section of it, in that they are not a restricted group or one where members share a private connection, such as social clubs or professional associations with specific membership;
  • Your charity’s activities must be legal and must not be contrary to public policy

You can take the CRA’s six-question quiz to help you make a decision about registration and determine eligibility. And, if this is the way you want to go, you’ll almost certainly want to have legal advice and support for the process.

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Alternatives to starting a registered charity

Before you make the choice to obtain charitable status, do some research and consider one of the following alternatives to becoming a charity. Here are five other ways to apply your passion to a cause: 

1. Become a Nonprofit Organization

If your intended work doesn’t meet the definition of charitable (i.e. falling under the four CRA-defined categories of charitable purposes), but is also not directed at making a profit, it will generally fall under other nonprofit goals. Nonprofits can “operate for social welfare, civic improvement, pleasure, sport, recreation, or any other purpose except profit.” 

While charities and nonprofits share a number of the same tax benefits, a nonprofit cannot issue official receipts for income tax purposes. There are many other significant differences between the two forms of organization, including these that the CRA highlights.

While charitable registration happens at the federal level, nonprofits can either register federally or at the provincial level.

If you want to start either type of organization, legal advice is certainly well-advised.

2. Join an Existing Charity or Nonprofit

With over 170,000 charitable and nonprofit organizations in Canada, it’s likely there is already one out there that’s doing what you want to do. Rather than investing time and energy toward setting up your own programs, networks, and volunteers, why not join their team instead? Consider joining that group's board, volunteering, or seeking a paid position so you can start enacting positive change.

Even if you can’t find an organization that exactly matches what you want to achieve, you can gain a lot of ‘on the ground’ experience, laying the foundation to run your own in the future. And, in the meantime, starting your program or activity under the auspices of an existing organization provides built-in advice and support, while letting someone else take care of the significant compliance responsibilities of running an organization. 

3. Start a Chapter of a National Organization

Larger charities working across multiple cities or provinces will often have different chapters and each structure will be different. If you’re aligned with a chapter-based organization, see if there’s one set up in your community. If not, there’s a prime opportunity for you to drive forward your mission with the backing of a well-oiled vehicle. Each group will have specific regulations on what individual chapters can and can’t do, but you can take advantage of experienced staff, existing marketing materials, policies and procedures, and an established brand to get you started. 

4. Become a Peer-to-Peer Fundraiser

One of the greatest gifts you as an individual can give an organization is wider exposure to and support for its cause. Peer-to-peer fundraising lets you muster support for a cause you care about by amplifying their message across your network. You get to raise funds and help make a difference, and the organization gets to reach new prospective donors. Everybody wins. 

5. Create a Social Business

Recently, there has been a profound rise in the number of social enterprises. While definitions differ, at its core, to be a social business means putting people before profits and knowing the impact your business can have on society and its environment. There is a lot of good you can do as a social business. While starting a business is also no easy feat, it could be a more viable path depending on what you are looking to achieve.

Plus, with a host of growth and funding options becoming more readily available for social purpose companies, it’s even easier to get a business off the ground. Here’s how to get started.

There are so many ways to support our local communities and give back, and doing good is not necessarily pigeon-holed to starting a registered charity. In fact, there are numerous other options outside of the ones listed above. If you do decide to start a charity or nonprofit organization, do your research before diving in and make sure you speak to experts, such as lawyers, network bodies, or registration bodies within government. Most importantly - keep doing good no matter where you find yourself. 


Guest contributions represent the personal opinions and insights of the authors and may not reflect the views or opinions of Imagine Canada.

A storyteller by nature and an organizer by inheritance, Sam enjoys crafting meaningful content equally as much as colour coding spreadsheets. As the Marketing Director at Keela, a Canadian Donor Management Software (CRM), she is always on the hunt for new and innovative ways to educate nonprofits and help them maximize their impact.

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