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Understanding the Differences: Non-Profits vs. Charities in Canada

Non-Profits vs. Charities-1When we think about organizations dedicated to making a difference, terms like 'non-profit' and 'charity' often come to mind. However, while these terms are frequently used interchangeably in casual conversation, they represent distinctly different entities under Canadian law, each with its own structure, purpose, and regulatory obligations. Understanding the nuances between a non-profit organization and a charity is crucial not only for those involved in running these entities but also for donors, volunteers, and policymakers who interact with them.

In Canada, the differences between non-profits and charities extend from their foundational legal definitions to their tax obligations and public expectations. This blog post aims to clarify these differences, providing a comprehensive guide to help you discern between the two. Whether you're considering starting your own organization, planning to donate, or simply want to understand where your contributions are going, knowing these distinctions can greatly influence your decisions and expectations. 

Key Takeaways

  1. Legal Definitions and Tax Benefits Non-profits and charities in Canada are legally distinct, each with unique tax treatments. Non-profits include entities like clubs and associations, which are not confined to charitable activities and cannot issue tax receipts unless registered as charities. Charities operate exclusively for charitable purposes and can issue tax-deductible receipts, enhancing their fundraising capabilities.

  2. Regulatory and Operational Flexibility Non-profits enjoy more operational flexibility and face fewer regulatory constraints compared to charities, which are strictly regulated by the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). Charities must strictly adhere to their charitable purposes and maintain high levels of transparency and accountability in their financial and operational reporting.

  3. Fundraising and Public Trust Charities can issue tax receipts, significantly aiding their fundraising efforts and broadening their access to various funding sources, including government and private grants. This ability also boosts their public credibility and trust. Non-profits, while still eligible for funding, often face limitations in accessing certain grants and achieving the same level of public trust.

Definition of Non-Profit Organizations

A non-profit organization (NPO) or not-for-profit in Canada is defined as a club, society, or association that is organized and operated solely for social welfare, civic improvement, pleasure or recreation, or any other purpose except profit. For this blog, we’ll be talking about nonprofit corporation. Incorporation for a non-profit typically involves a simple registration process with the province. This provides a legal entity for the organization that can be use to track operations and secure funding. In Canada, NPOs can incorporate either provincially or federally depending on their intended operations. An unincorporated nonprofit would simply be a group of people getting together to organize initiatives for a common cause.

It is important to note that the term "non-profit" does not necessarily mean that the organization does not generate profit, but rather that any profits made must be used solely towards fulfilling the organization's objectives, without personal financial gain.

These organizations can vary widely in their purposes and activities. For example, they might include professional or amateur sports clubs, cultural associations, and advocacy groups. They are not restricted to charitable activities alone and do not need to focus on relief of poverty, advancement of education, or other community benefits which are typical of charities.

Definition of Charities

On the other hand, a charity or charitable organization in Canada is a special type of non-profit organization that operates exclusively for charitable purposes. The Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) defines charities as organizations that must meet the "public benefit test," meaning their activities and operations must provide a tangible benefit to the public. The purposes of a charity typically fall into one of four categories: the relief of poverty, the advancement of education, the advancement of religion, or other purposes that benefit the community in a way the courts have said is charitable, examples of this could include food banks, soup kitchens, and

The distinction is important because charities are granted charitable status which allows them to issue tax-deductible receipts for donations they receive, a crucial aspect of fundraising and generating public support.

There are also private foundations a type of charitable organization that, while still focused on philanthropic goals, typically operates differently from public charities. They are usually funded by a single individual, family, or corporation, which contributes significantly to the foundation's capital. This funding structure influences both the operational methods and the regulatory framework within which private foundations operate.

Key Legal Distinctions

Registration and Regulation

The first major key difference between a not-for-profit organization and a charity in Canada revolves around their registration and regulation. While non-profits are typically incorporated under provincial legislation, charities must go a step further by registering with the CRA and the Government of Canada. This registration is crucial as it subjects charities to stricter regulations and oversight but also grants them the ability to issue tax receipts.

Operational Restrictions

Non-profits have more flexibility in terms of their operations and activities as long as they align with their non-profit nature and do not include profit-generating activities as a primary focus. Charities, however, are tightly bound to operate within the confines of charitable purposes as defined by law. They must ensure that their activities directly support their charitable objectives.

Key Financial Differences

In terms of taxation, while both non-profits and charities have tax-exempt status, meaning that they do not pay income tax, only registered charities can provide official donation receipts for income tax purposes. This status also allows charities to benefit from certain other tax exemptions and rebates, such as property taxes and GST/HST rebates.


Registered charities are not required to pay income tax, although they must submit an annual information return (Form T3010) within six months following the end of their fiscal year. Typically, registered charities are subject to GST and HST on their purchases but may be eligible for a partial rebate on qualifying expenses. Additionally, most supplies provided by charities are exempt from GST and HST, and the net tax is determined using the net tax calculation method for charities.

While also exempt from paying income tax, NPOs may have to pay tax on property income or capital gains. If an NPO is incorporated, they may have to file a T2 return, an information return (Form T1044) or both within 6 months of their fiscal year-end. Non-profits pay GST and HST on purchases and can only claim a partial rebate of GST and HST on eligible purchases if they receive significant government funding. Only a few supplies made by NPOs are exempt from GST and HST, and they must calculate net tax the regular way

One of the most significant advantages for charities is the ability to issue tax receipts. This capability allows charities to attract more donations, as donors can claim a tax credit. Non-profits cannot issue such receipts unless they are also registered as charities.

Access to Funding and Spending Restrictions

Charities often have greater access to both public and private funding opportunities. Many grants and funding programs are specifically reserved for registered charities. Non-profits, while still eligible for many types of funding, may find that some doors are only open to registered charities.

However, this comes with an added restrict of a spending requirement for charities. Charities are required to spend a minimum amount each year, called a disbursement quota, on their charitable activities or as gifts to other qualified donees (i.e. other organizations that can issue donation receipts).

Reporting and Transparency

Annual Filings

Charities are required to file an annual information return with the CRA along with their financial statements. This requirement ensures a higher level of transparency and public accountability. Non-profits, depending on their province of registration, may have less stringent reporting requirements.

Public Scrutiny

Due to the ability to issue tax receipts and the nature of their activities, charities often come under greater public and governmental scrutiny. The operations, financial practices, and organizational governance of charities are regularly examined to ensure compliance with regulatory requirements.

Governance and Funding

Governance structures in non-profits and charities also differ significantly. Non-profits are typically governed by a board of directors or a similar body according to their bylaws, which do not necessarily require the same level of public disclosure as charities. Charities, however, are required to maintain a higher level of transparency and accountability, particularly in terms of their financial reporting to the CRA, which includes detailed annual filings.

Funding sources for each type of organization can also differ. Non-profits often rely on membership dues, private donations, and sometimes government grants, depending on their activities. Charities, given their ability to issue tax receipts, can access a broader range of public charitable contributions, which can significantly aid in fundraising efforts.

Public Perception and Expectations

Public perception and expectations of non-profits and charities can influence their operations and the scrutiny they face. Charities are often held to higher standards of accountability and transparency due to their tax-advantaged status and the public interest in their charitable work. This expectation drives a need for meticulous record-keeping and reporting practices. Non-profits, while also trusted entities, may operate under less public scrutiny, provided they comply with their governing statutes.

To learn more about the key differences, check out this simple comparison featured by the CRA.

Choosing Between a Non-Profit and a Charity



  1. Operational Flexibility: Non-profits enjoy greater leeway in defining and modifying their operational strategies and goals, as they are not confined to strictly "charitable" activities. This flexibility can be particularly advantageous for organizations that operate in niche or emerging sectors.

  2. Lower Regulatory Burden: Compared to charities, non-profits typically face fewer regulatory requirements, making the administrative load lighter and potentially reducing operating costs.

  3. Community Engagement: Non-profits can often engage directly with local communities and stakeholders without the stringent constraints faced by charities, fostering stronger community ties and responsiveness to local needs.


  1. Limited Access to Tax-Advantaged Funding: Without the ability to issue tax receipts, non-profits might find it more challenging to attract donations from individuals and corporations seeking tax benefits.

  2. Perception and Credibility: In some cases, being a non-profit without charity status can affect public perception, as donors and stakeholders may prefer organizations that can provide tax receipts.

  3. Funding Restrictions: Non-profits may not qualify for certain government grants and other funding that are exclusively available to registered charities.



  1. Tax Benefits: The ability to issue tax receipts enhances a charity’s appeal to donors, facilitating larger and more frequent donations.

  2. Increased Funding Opportunities: Charities can access a broader array of funding sources, including government grants, foundation grants, and private donations, all of which can provide substantial financial support.

  3. Enhanced Public Trust: Registration as a charity can boost an organization’s legitimacy and credibility, which can attract more support, volunteers, and media attention.


  1. Stringent Operational Constraints: Charities must adhere strictly to the activities that directly further their registered charitable purposes, which can limit innovation and adaptation to changing conditions.

  2. Complex Regulatory Compliance: The need to comply with detailed regulatory requirements including reporting, governance, and transparency can be cumbersome and resource-intensive.

  3. Risk of Sanctions: Charities that fail to comply with regulations face significant risks, including penalties, loss of charitable status, and damage to reputation.

Summing Up the Trade-Offs

When weighing the benefits and drawbacks, it’s clear that the choice between operating as a non-profit or a charity in Canada involves balancing flexibility and operational freedom against the potential for greater funding and tax benefits. Organizations must consider their long-term objectives and the nature of their activities to determine which structure best aligns with their goals and the needs of the communities they serve.


Understanding the differences between non-profits and charities in Canada is essential for anyone involved with or interested in the sector. Each has its unique legal definitions, tax implications, and operational guidelines. This knowledge is not only vital for proper compliance with Canadian laws but also for making informed decisions about donations, involvement, and governance. By recognizing these distinctions, stakeholders can better support and engage with these organizations, contributing to their vital role in society.

This exploration provides a foundation for those looking to navigate the complexities of social purpose organizations in Canada. Whether you aim to contribute time, resources, or leadership, knowing these differences enhances your ability to make a meaningful impact.