How to start a charity in the UK 

Written by Andy Pearson

text "start a charity" on an orange background with icons relating to charities

There are lots of charities in existence (168,186 in the UK on our latest count) but this doesn’t mean there isn’t a need for more! This post will explain how to start a charity the right way.

Just like new companies can enter an existing marketplace and bring fresh thinking that disrupts the status quo, there is space for new charities who think they can do things differently and better. 

However, setting up a non profit organisation in the UK is not for the faint-hearted. Not only is it a heavily regulated area but it’s also competitive. Yes, in an ideal world new charities would see their mission as increasing overall giving rather than stealing market share from existing charities. But the reality is that there is a bit of both. And that’s fine. Inefficient and poorly run charities deserve to be ousted by fresh, new, well-run charities. 

Inspiration from Dan Pallotta on running charities more like companies:

As you embark on the exciting and daunting venture that is starting a new charity, this post will, we hope, help you think through some of the key issues. For more information about what sort of organisation to start, read our post on Charity or social enterprise? Which is the best legal structure to choose?

1. Define a distinctive mission

One of the hardest parts of starting a new charity is getting funding. To do this you need to convince funders and individuals that you are different. Funders are overwhelmed by funding applications and individuals are constantly bombarded by requests for money. How will you stand out? Here are some ways in which you can differentiate yourself.

Geographic niche

Geography matters and people care about it. So going hyper-local can be an effective strategy. If you genuinely focus in this way you will gradually develop specific local knowledge that broader charities may struggle to acquire. To take this approach, make sure you understand the peculiarities of the geographical area you choose and integrate these into your methodology and all of your communications. 

Demographic niche

People are complicated and if your charity is focusing on people then it may be an opportunity to dive into the detail. What is life like for a very specific type of person or life situation? By diving into the detail you will gain insights and make it easier to build a community of interested people. A great example is PSC Support, a charity working toward a world without Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis, a rare disease. They know what they are about and it’s helped them grow. 

This is a great post on the difference between mission and vision:…

Also if you are interested in a slightly different approach to creating social impact then read our post on how to start a social enterprise

2. Understand your audience

Understanding your audience is easier if you have defined a distinctive mission. If your audience is very broad then it’s a good indicator you haven’t defined a distinctive mission. 

It is a common misconception that a broad audience makes it easier for you to attract people to your new cause. Many people are understandably reluctant to exclude anyone from engaging with their exciting new project. But the reality is the opposite. The broader you define your mission and the wider you cast your net for supporters, the less likely you are to succeed because you will not stand out from other options. 

If you define your mission narrowly and derive from that mission a narrow audience, your communications are likely to be much more effective. To follow the example mentioned above, PSC Support know who they are targeting: people who suffer from Primary Sclerosing Cholangitis, those people’s friends and family and the medical community working with this disease. 

3. Choose a name

This will feel really, really important. But it’s not. 

Yes, if you succeed then you will be seeing this name a lot. And writing it a lot. So you’d better not hate it. But in the end it’s not going to be a critical factor. 

Here are a few guidelines to consider but don’t get distracted spending hours and hours on this. 

  • It should be relatively easy to say over the phone and easy to spell. 
  • If it is descriptive of your mission then err on the side of general rather than specific. While it’s crucial to have a clearly defined distinctive mission, this may legitimately change but you may not want to change your name as a result. 
  • Avoid long names that are likely to get shortened to meaningless or unfriendly acronyms. 
  • Take lessons from the business world where many successful companies have abstract names that, as they succeed, gather their own significance. 

For more on this area read our post on how to choose a good charity name.

4. Test the concept

Before you get too committed to your idea it’s a good idea to test it out. It may morph as a result and that’s a very good thing. As the old saying goes: ‘no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy’. Until you get outside and test your idea in the real world you will never start to learn about its strengths and weaknesses. 

Here are some ways you can test your concept:

  • Research and list everyone doing the same thing.
  • Speak to 10 independent people working in the area in which you are interested and get their honest feedback on your idea. 
  • Propose your concept to 10 potential supporters who are not friends or family and ask if they will support the charity once developed. If they won’t, ask why! This is hard but you will not regret it. 

5. Start the practicalities

You should discipline yourself to avoid getting into the practicalities until you have invested significant time in each of the areas discussed above. This will save you time in the long run. The setup practicalities are relatively straightforward if you have a distinctive mission, clear target audience and you have tested out the concept thoroughly. 

So what do you need to think about and what should you do first? 

  • Form your team. Who will work in the charity with you? Who will offer guidance and oversight? Consider using our trustee skills audit and free templates for trustee meetings.  
  • Decide on the right legal structure and register with the Charities Commission if appropriate. This involves appointing trustees responsible for the governance of the charity. You don’t have to register until you have an annual income of £5,000. You may also wish to consider working as a social enterprise
  • Start building a list of interested people.
  • Build a charity website and start communicating by writing about what you do and sharing it by email with your growing list and through social media. At this stage, don’t agonise over these things and choose a small number of marketing channels. Get something up quickly and see how you get on. 

Good luck!

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