Six tips for would-be Charity Start-Ups

March 20, 2023

Canada’s charitable sector has a long history. According to Imagine Canada, we have one of the largest charitable sector in the world, second only to the Netherlands. It has grown to encompass  health, education, social services, community development and housing, as well as those that serve “expressive” functions in arts and culture, religion, sports, recreation, civic advocacy, environmental protection, and business, labour, and professional associations. In fact, there are about 84,000 active, registered charities in Canada, give or take, most of which have ten or fewer paid full-time staff and nearly 60% are volunteer-run.

That is a lot of goodwill!

Many, if not all charities, begin in a similar way. A person or group of people sees a challenge or problem they want to see addressed. They see opportunities to address these issues by organizing the time, talents and generosity of others. It is exactly that spirit and energy that makes Canada’s charitable sector one of the most vibrant and unique in the world and an important contributor to our national economy.

Are you considering launching a charity? 

Before you go “live” on a website or file your CRA paperwork, here are 6 key tips to keep in mind:

  1. Do your homework.There is a lot of competition out there. Is anyone working on a similar challenge or problem already? Are there opportunities to align values and combine efforts? Wherever there are opportunities to collaborate, do so! Even if you decide to launch a charity, developing productive collaborations opens many doors. For example, you can apply for grant funding together, leverage resources (like space sharing) and draw greater attention to your common or aligned cause or issue. Government and larger foundations tend to favour collaborative approaches when making their funding decisions.
  1. Challenge yourself.Canadians are regularly and often called upon to contribute their time and resources to a wide variety of charitable causes. Will your charity fill an existing gap? Ask yourself what makes your solution or cause stand out among these many important issues or approaches. Test your assumptions – particularly with those who think least like you. Just because you believe something is a great idea does not necessarily mean everyone will see it that way. Use this process to gather champions, learn how to win over the neutral and undecided, and get very clear about how much energy you will give to the uninterested or unwilling.
  1. Do an inventory of the business skill sets you will need.While charitable work absolutely transcends business measures of success, there are many parts of running a charity that require business skills. Anyone can run a Go Fund Me fundraiser, and even then, there are some limits. A charity is a legal entity, bound by rules, expectations, and responsibilities. Your Board of Directors (a requirement by law) ought to include people who not only have enthusiasm for your charitable Mission, but also some of the skill sets needed to contribute to its advancement.
  1. Plan to scope and scale. The bigger your goals, the more resources you will likely need to fund them. Just like starting your own business, you need a sustainable, manageable plan that allows for growing your charity’s reputation, your capacity to deliver on what you set out to do, and how far you can reach. That’s how you build something capable of making an impact.
  1. Be honest with yourself. How comfortable are you asking others for help or money? Many founders contribute a good chunk of money and time in the early days of setting up a charity, but unless you are Melinda Gates, you will need to figure out how to raise funds. Asking for financial support is a skill and an art. If you are lucky, you will have both. If you aren’t so blessed, there are many excellent professional fundraisers out there to guide and support you. Canada’s Association of Fundraising Professionals is an excellent resource and there are many local chapters established across the country.
  1. As a final word, I would urge aspiring problem solvers and innovators to consider whether you need to become a charity at all to achieve your goals. Charitable status offers many advantages, central to which is the opportunity to issue tax receipts to donors. It also brings its limitations. Instead, can you accomplish your goals as a registered non-profit? Have you thought about the opportunities becoming a social enterprise offers? The legal structure you use to frame your work will dictate how you do your work, therefore it is critical that you fully explore your options and decide what framework best suits your aspirations.

Rise Up Strategies has several additional modules that may be of interest to you as you do your planning, including guidance on advocacy, government relations. We are always happy to chat with you about how we might help move your plans forward.