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What is a charity?

Ros 2015 short hairRos Rice
Executive Officer
Community Networks Aotearoa

In a discussion the other day, the subject of ‘What is the definition of a Charity’ came up?

This is an interesting question because this subject has been grappled with for a long time. If we look to what is currently being held up as a definition, that which is used by the Charities Commission, the definition is actually based on the Statute of Charitable Uses which came into force in 1601 directly after the Poor Law of 1601. 

Then the following purposes were listed as charitable;

The relief of aged, impotent, and poor people; the maintenance of sick and maimed soldiers and mariners, schools of learning, free schools and scholars of universities; the repair of bridges, havens, causeways, churches, sea banks and highways; the education and preferment of orphans; the relief, stock or maintenance of houses of correction; marriages of poor maids; supportation, aid and help of young tradesmen, handicraftsmen and persons decayed; the relief or redemption of prisoners or captives and the aid or ease of any poor inhabitants concerning payments of fifteens,11 setting out of soldiers and other taxes.”

A veritable list of Elizabethan issues that may not have much resonance in New Zealand in 2018.

The Charities Act 2005 has attempted to define the spirit of this law into four particular categories

  • The relief of poverty
  • The advancement of education
  • The advancement of religion
  • Other purposes beneficial to the community.

My question is, do these more modern terms correctly calculate whether an organisation has exclusively a charitable purpose?  Who determines how a Charity may meet these requirements and what policies are set in place to finally agree to the request for registration?  There are a lot of lawyers who work on these issues and a lot of heart ache for organisations simply trying to do the right thing.

The problem is, does the word Charity even properly describe what our Incorporated Societies and Trusts are formed to do?

In these current times it is well-nigh impossible to receive any form of funding from any funder if you do not have a Charities Number and if you are not a legal organisation.  No wonder so many small community groups who just want to help out around their community end up having to go through all these legal jumps and add to the numbers of NFPs in New Zealand.

I just like it when 4 people in Bluff decide they want to get together and work on a community garden.  Isn’t getting together and doing stuff more like community development that this over legalised and excessively accountable world we are all struggling to survive in?

For me, a Charity is group of people doing good stuff in their community.  It’s the best definition I have found so far.

This blog has been contributed by a member of the ComVoices network

ComVoices is a Wellington based network of national community and voluntary sector organisations. It was established so that sector organisations would have a more powerful voice at Government level and in the community.

Click here for our website:  http://comvoices.org.nz/