What is a Charity Governing Document?

At the heart of every nonprofit lies the governing document. Sharing the organization’s name, mission, structure, powers, and more in your governing document helps you establish a clear, accountable, and transparent framework that not only complies with legal standards but also supports growth and adaptability. Read more to learn what a governing document entails and what different countries require.

5 minutes read
What is a Charity Governing Document?

A governing document is essential when starting a nonprofit in all countries because it provides a legal and operational framework, ensures transparency and accountability, clarifies the charity’s mission, and facilitates effective governance and financial management.

Creating a governing document for charities can be complicated, but there are similar themes and rules to follow regardless of where you’re located. This article will discuss what makes a governing document, why charities need one, and what you must include.

What is a Governing Document for a Charity?

Governing documents are foundational and detail the charity’s purpose, structure, and the rules that govern the organization. Governing documents can have a variety of names, including:

  • Corporate Articles of Incorporation
  • LLC Articles of Incorporation
  • Corporate Charter
  • Constitution of an Unincorporated Association
  • Trust Agreement
  • Constitution
  • Memorandum and Articles of Association
  • Bylaws
  • Statutes
  • Deed of Incorporation
  • Deed of Trust

Why Charities Need a Governing Document

Image shows someone working on their charity governing document.

Government requirements and laws vary depending on location, but most countries require a governing document that shares the organization’s purpose, structure, and operating guidelines.

Nonprofits need governing documents for several reasons, including –

1. Mission and Purpose

A governing document must clearly articulate an organization’s mission, goals, and purpose to follow local legal definitions, religious and cultural considerations, and political or social factors. This document also clarifies the organization’s objectives and impact for all supporters.

2. Structure and Governance

The document must also include details on the nonprofit organization’s leadership, including roles and responsibilities and how decisions are made. A clear structure and governing document help prevent conflicts, define roles, and promote effective leadership and governance.

3. Transparency and Accountability

A governing document provides a clear framework for the organization’s structure, decision-making processes, and operational rules. The transparency of these documents helps build trust between donors, board members, beneficiaries, and the public. It also ensures accountability for the organization’s actions.

4. Financial Management

Charities must follow budgeting, accounting principles, and financial reporting laws regardless of location. Guidelines in the organization’s governing document ensure it can handle funds responsibly and provide accurate financial information to supporters.

5. Donor Requirements

Since donors are a charity’s primary revenue source, organizations must have a governing document that meets donor requirements.

6. Conflict Resolution

The integrity of a charity relies on an ability to resolve conflicts between stakeholders. A governing document must show that the decisions made by the leadership are always in the interest of the organization and its mission.

7. Risk Management

A governing document can assure the public that a charity is capable of anticipating and addressing potential challenges.

What to Include in a Charity Governing Document

Image shows a group of people reviewing their charity governing document.

Requirements for a charity’s governing document vary by country, but there are several key elements that most countries agree on. A governing document must affirm the organization’s commitment to comply with the country’s laws and regulations and, in most countries, include the following information –

1. Name and Address

Choosing a name for a charity can be a meaningful yet time-consuming process. In addition to naming an organization being crucial to branding, awareness, and more, governments have several rules and regulations surrounding the naming of organizations.

One of these rules has to do with the charity’s governing document. All countries require governing documents to clearly state a charity’s name and address of their primary office.

2. Purpose

The purpose of a charity can vary based on a country’s legal definitions, cultural and religious considerations, and political and social factors. Still, there are common themes for a charitable organization purpose across countries, like –

  • Human rights
  • Disaster aid and relief
  • Health and medical assistance
  • Education and skill development
  • Poverty alleviation
  • Environmental conservation
  • Community development
  • Children and animal welfare

3. Nonprofit Status

In many countries, charities must publicly state that the organization is a nonprofit or charity and that its primary purpose is charitable, education, or to benefit the public.

4. Structure

Governing documents must include details about the board of directors, officers, and committees. These details must define the roles, responsibilities, and terms of office.

5. Membership

While this is not required for all charitable organizations, if a nonprofit has a membership structure, you must include the rights and responsibilities of members, term lengths, and membership meeting details in the governing document.

6. Powers of the Organization

A governing document must share the powers and authority of an organization to enter into contracts, hire staff, and undertake any activities to meet its mission.

7. Amendment Procedures

As the organization grows, original guidelines and rules may require adaptations. A governing document must include details on how to amend itself to remain transparent in the eyes of its supporters.

8. Dissolution Clause

If the worst happens and the organization must close, a governing document must share procedures for closing the office and what to do with any remaining assets.

9. Conflict of Interest Policy

People run charities, and there may be opportunities for an individual to benefit from an activity within the organization. The governing document for a charity must address these conflicts of interest for board members, officers, and other key stakeholders to ensure decisions are made in the organization’s and its mission’s best interest.

10. Meetings

Including meeting requirements, procedures, and voting rights in the governing documents will ensure effective communication and decision-making for leadership.

Governing Document Requirements by Country

We’ve already discussed the similarities between countries regarding governing documents, but there are also several differences. The following countries are only a few examples of how each country may have different rules and regulations for organizations, government support for charities, and help for the public.

1. United States

In the United States, a charity must only engage in activities that meet its primary purpose. If the organization is dissolved, all assets must still be used for the exempt purpose. The IRS requires the charity’s governing document to detail how this will occur.

2. Canada 

In Canada, organizations must choose between becoming a charitable organization and a public or private foundation. Charitable organizations in Canada must incorporate with a constitution or trust document. Foundations must be incorporated using a trust document.

3. United Kingdom

The United Kingdom makes creating a charitable governing document easier with government-accepted templates. They state that organizations can create their own document, but it may delay the registration process.

Pro tip: Once registered, nonprofits in the UK can use Donorbox to collect BACS Direct Debit, UK Direct Debit, and Gift Aid from donors.

4. Australia

In Australia, charitable organizations must provide a copy of their governing documents to the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission (ACNC). Once the organization is registered, the public can view its governing document on this website.

These examples only come from a few countries requiring charity governing documents. All organizations must check the requirements in their home countries to ensure they don’t meet unnecessary delays.


A governing document is a requirement for all nonprofit organizations in various countries. Charities rely on governing documents to establish a legal and operational framework to ensure transparency, accountability, and effective governance.

While the process can feel time-consuming and complicated, countries follow similar themes and rules for governing documents. By including your organization’s name, mission, structure, powers, and more, you can establish a clear, accountable, and transparent framework that not only complies with legal standards but also supports growth and adaptability.

If you’ve recently started a nonprofit in the United States, we’ve created several resources and templates to help you through the process. Donorbox provides weekly fundraising and nonprofit management tips and resources to help nonprofits effectively communicate needs and collect donations from supporters.

Visit our website to see how Donorbox stands out from competitors.

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Kristine Ensor is a freelance writer with over a decade of experience working with local and international nonprofits. As a nonprofit professional she has specialized in fundraising, marketing, event planning, volunteer management, and board development.

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