There is no definition of "charitable" in the Income Tax Act or similar legislation. What is charitable is determined based on the decisions of courts over more than 400 years.
Some things that benefit the public, or are "good," are not charitable. There are many beneficial activities undertaken in communities across the country that are not charitable, and so cannot be offered by registered charities. For example, sport and recreation activities do not generally fall within the definition of charitable.
The courts have identified four types of charitable activity:
- the relief of poverty,
- the advancement of education,
- the advancement of religion, and
- other purposes that benefit the community in a way the courts have said is charitable.
The following table, from CRA, shows what would generally be considered charitable under each category of charity. Note that this is not a complete list. The links from each charitable category are to additional CRA resources, including relevant court cases.
Relief of poverty
The relief of poverty includes providing free or low-cost goods or services, such as food, clothing, furniture, shelter, and so on, to the poor. The poor are those lacking basic amenities available to the general population.
- operating a food bank for the benefit of the poor
- providing non-profit residential accommodation for persons of low income
- providing clothing, and other basic amenities to persons of low income
- providing the necessities of life to victims of disasters or sudden catastrophes
Advancement of education
The advancement of education for this purpose must include formal instruction or training for the mind; preparing a person for a job; or improving a useful branch of human knowledge.
An educational activity should involve a fair presentation of facts. If an organization intends to influence public opinion on a controversial issue, it is not advancing education in the charitable sense. For this reason, an advocacy group would not qualify as a charity.
- establishing and operating schools and similar institutions
- establishing academic chairs and lectureships
- providing scholarships, bursaries, and prizes for scholastic achievement
- undertaking research in a recognized field of knowledge (The research must be carried out for educational purposes and the results must be made available to the public.)
- advancing science and scientific institutions, including maintaining learned societies (professional associations or other societies that primarily provide benefits to members are not considered charitable.)
- providing and maintaining museums and public art galleries
Advancement of religion
The advancement of religion includes promoting spiritual teachings of a religious body and maintaining the doctrines and spiritual observances on which those teachings are based. There has to be an element of theistic worship, which means the worship of a deity or deities in the spiritual sense. To foster a belief in proper morals or ethics alone is not enough to qualify as a charity under this category. The beliefs and practices cannot be what the courts consider subversive or immoral. Other activities that advance religion include: organizing and providing religious instruction, performing pastoral and missionary work, and establishing and maintaining buildings for worship and other religious use.
- establishing and maintaining buildings for religious worship and other religious use
- organizing and providing religious instruction
- carrying out pastoral and missionary work
Other purposes beneficial to the community
This category includes various purposes that do not fall within the other three categories but which the courts have recognized as charitable.
- providing immediate relief to victims of natural disasters
- relieving suffering or disability caused by old age
- preventing and relieving sickness and disability, both physical and mental
- providing rental housing and related facilities for people with special needs
- preserving the environment
- protecting the welfare of children
- providing counselling services for people in distress
- rehabilitating victims of substance abuse and preventing substance abuse
- providing certain public amenities to benefit the community
- establishing safety rescue operations or a volunteer fire department
- establishing humane societies, animal shelters, and similar organizations to prevent cruelty to animals