Starting an Organization

Many think starting a registered charity is the main (or only) option, but there is a range of organization types that operate for social benefit. People often want to start a charity because they have:

  • passion about a cause and a great idea about how to achieve these goals.
  • significant funds to donate to a cause, but want to ensure the funds are used for a specific charitable activity.

What's the difference between a nonprofit organization and a charity?

These terms are used interchangeably in common language.  The CRA has a helpful chart outlining the differences between how each is legally defined according to the Income Tax Act.

In Canada, the term "nonprofit" is generally applied to organizations representing one of three groups:

Registered charity

Distinct from not-for-profit corporations, charities run programs that meet the charitable activities as outlined by the Canada Revenue Agency’s Charities Directorate. They are registered and regulated by the CRA and are able to issue tax receipts to donors.


A type of registered charity that primarily exists to distribute funds to qualified donees. Canadian foundations may give grants (donations) to other charities, they may exist to be a funding arm for another charity - such as hospital foundations - or they may carry on their own charitable activities.

Nonprofit corporation

Incorporated as a legal entity separate from its members and directors. Not all register as a charity with the CRA. They can earn a profit, but profits are used to further its corporate goals (and not be distributed to shareholders, members or directors).

Which is Right for You?

This depends on the activities you will be carrying out. Charities have some benefits such as: issuing tax receipts to donors, certain favourable income tax treatment, and general public trust; however not-for-profit corporations and social enterprises have fewer regulatory constraints for earning income from events, fundraising and product sales. Here are some alternatives to operating a charity:

Working with an existing charity

Use CanadaHelps, CharityData or CRA's database of registered charities to research existing charities that provide similar services or support the same cause.

Operating as a nonprofit

If what you want to do is partially charitable and partially not, a nonprofit corporation might be a better fit. Nonprofits have different latitude in operations, even though they cannot issue tax receipts. Nonprofits have fewer regulations when it comes to:

  • political activities (charities are limited);
  • fundraising events & events in general (charities require receipting procedures); and
  • user fees (charities require receipting procedures that nonprofits do not).

Operating as a social enterprise or business

If the service or activity you offer benefits participants or the community, but your user fees and/or sales of products more than cover all of the costs of offering the program(s), you may want to consider establishing a social enterprise. Additionally, businesses generally get back, through input tax credits, all of the GST/HST/QST that they pay, while charities only get about half of that tax rebated to them.


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