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Should you set up a new charity?

Questions to ask before setting up a charity or voluntary organisation.

A light bulb moment that inspires you to enrich the lives of others is precious. This passion and enthusiasm is worth putting to good use. It may not mean, however, it is a good idea to set up a new charity.

Think before you set up a new charity

The Charity Commission advises those intending to set up a new charity, or a non-profit making organisation, to research the field. There are over 160,000 registered charities in the UK. The Commission estimates there are as many unregistered not for profit organisations. More than 6,000 charities were registered in 2013.

Look at what other charities are doing

Your charitable purpose may already be the focus of another organisation. Duplication is discouraged to avoid charities with similar objectives competing for limited resources to the detriment of beneficiaries.

Research organisations working in the sector and regional catchment area you are interested in to establish the level of need for your project. 

Examine your motivation

Are you motivated by a sense of outrage about a social injustice? Do you feel grateful to be more fortunate than some others, or do you perhaps identify with the intended beneficiaries, have a feeling of ‘that person could have been me’? Have you been through a bereavement and want to do something in memory of a loved one? Are you at a stage in life where you have more time available? Or do you want to give something back to your community?

Just as dogs are for life and not just for Christmas, early consideration should be given to an organisation’s long term sustainability and its viability when you are no longer the driving force behind it. Harsh as it sounds, organisations that are overly dependent on a founder are vulnerable and may not be sustainable. At an early stage responsible founders should give thought to who will succeed them.

Ask yourself some questions about how and why you want to start a charity:

  • is the aim to benefit one individual, a family, or a large group?
  • is your interest in a cause greater than the need?
  • will a project fill a genuine gap in charitable provision or are you duplicating a service that exists?

Assess your objectives

From the outset it helps to be clear about your objectives. You should be able to write these succinctly and clearly, so that your vision is understood easily by others. The process of writing objectives will help to establish if your idea is worth pursuing. 

Vision and mission

Your project should have a clear statement of purpose. This should not be lengthy – two or three short lines are best. You may begin with a long, wordy expression of your vision. The discipline of distilling your mission into a few succinct lines will provide you with wording that clearly and engagingly communicates it to others and encourages them to get on board.

Write a mission statement

This is a useful process to help with producing your statement.

  1. Write down your ideas and plans, without editing or prioritising them.
  2. arrange ideas into groupings, using different coloured pens to indicate connected ideas.
  3. Refine groupings until you have three core groupings.
  4. Write one sentence to encapsulate the key message of each grouping to give you three sentences.
  5. Put the three sentences in one paragraph.

Test your mission statement out on a few critical friends. Ask them to explain it to you in their own words. In this way you can be sure the mission statement is clear. This process will be more helpful if you test the mission statement on those who are representative of stakeholder groups with which you intend to engage.

To test out the validity and sustainability of your project it is important to challenge yourself and to be open to constructive feedback.

Consider the time and talent required for your project

It might be helpful to consider the following questions.

  • How much time (capacity) does the project require?
  • What skills, experience, expertise, contacts (capability) are required?• Do you have the capacity and capability to set up the project?
  • How will you support yourself during the period when you are committed to the project?
  • Are you able to make a long term commitment to seeing the project through?• Can your personal circumstances accommodate a major commitment to the project?
  • Will others get on board to support the project’s capacity and capability?
  • Who are your critical friends on the journey?

It can be difficult to appraise your strengths and weaknesses objectively and it is helpful from the outset to have a 'thought partner' who is well disposed towards, but not directly involved in, the project to act as a critical friend.

It can be helpful to make a detailed inventory of the skills and expertise the project will require. Use your critical friend to help you list your attributes and skills. This will help to identify what other skills and expertise you need to bring into the project.

Recognise you and the team of people working for the organisation may have different working styles. Do not be put off by this. Keep in mind that ultimately you are all working towards the same goal. Try to deploy different styles of working to the advantage of the organisation. A different approach can open up an entirely new avenue of fundraising, for example, or help to raise the profile of the organisation.

Imagine what success will look like

To engage others, including funders, it is crucial to show what success will look like and to present a convincing strategy and action plan to achieve it. Think of it in terms of training to run a marathon. The goal is to run the full 25 miles and you will build up to this in measurable stages. Each step will be challenging but achievable and cumulatively prepare you for the main event.

Consider key milestones

You will want to develop a detailed project plan. The plan will demonstrate that you know what needs to be done and how you will go about it. The following questions provide a useful model to consider milestones over a three year period.

  • What will the organisation look like in three years?
  • What will it look like in two years?
  • What will it look like in one year?
  • To achieve this, what steps must the organisation take in year one?

Developing these plans will help to guide your efforts and activities and make your plans accessible to others. If you decide to go ahead with setting up your charity it is important to be organised. Do not try to reinvent the wheel. Seek advice from organisations working in your sector and be open to learning from their mistakes. It is unlikely you will be able to succeed on your own and allowing other people to share the journey from the outset is beneficial.

Further information



Page last edited Jun 23, 2017

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