Overview of Scottish charities

About Scottish charities

Charities carry out a wide range of work in Scotland, and elsewhere. There are many ‘big name’ charities that you will recognise, working nationally or internationally, as well as smaller charities that are active in your community, working on a local basis. There are also many groups and organisations that you may not think of as charities.

Types of Scottish charities

Here are some examples of Scotland’s charities:

  • Community groups
  • Village halls
  • Pre-school playgroups
  • Churches and religious organisations
  • Swimming pools, art galleries and museums
  • Universities and colleges
  • Independent schools
  • Care providers
  • Training providers
  • Animal welfare groups
  • Agricultural societies
  • Student organisations
  • Scouts, Guides, Cub Scouts, Brownies, Beavers and Rainbows
  • Ex-services organisations
  • Environmental groups
  • Charities providing grants or services to other charities.

The charity sector in Scotland handles £14billion of income each year. Part of OSCR’s job is to make sure that this money is properly accounted for and is used for charities’ stated purposes.

What is a charity?

In Scotland, an organisation can only call itself a charity if it is entered in the Scottish Charity Register, published and maintained by OSCR. Only charities that are based in Scotland, or are controlled from Scotland, can say they are a ‘Scottish charity’ or ‘a registered Scottish charity’. OSCR has powers to take action against those claiming to be charities when they are not.

All charities in Scotland must meet the ‘charity test’. This is set out in law and means that among other things, charities must:

  • Have only charitable purposes
  • Provide public benefit
  • Use their funds and property only for charitable purposes
  • Allow fair access to the benefit they provide
  • Not be, or exist to advance, a political party.

How are charities set up?

Charities can exist in a number of ‘legal forms’ – how the organisation is constituted and run. Most are unincorporated associations, or companies limited by guarantee, some are trusts and in recent years many are Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisations (SCIOs). However the charity is set up, the consistent requirement is that they must all, as charities, comply with charity law and report to OSCR as regulator.

An organisation seeking to become a charity must apply to OSCR. We will consider whether the organisation meets the charity test.

How must charities behave?

Charities must work to achieve their stated charitable purposes. Charitable purposes are set out in law – for example, the relief or prevention of poverty, the advancement of education – and each charity has a governing document that explains what it exists to achieve.

Charities are run by ‘charity trustees’, those who are in control of the charity and manage its affairs. The charity trustees have clear legal duties to observe, and overall they must act in the charity’s best interests and aim to meet its stated purposes. We have powers to take action where this is not the case.

Where there are concerns that an organisation is conducting criminal activity, the Police should be contacted.

How do charities raise money?

Charities receive income and raise money in a variety of ways.

For example, they may:

  • receive grants from public bodies or other charities
  • be given a legacy in someone’s will
  • be given donations by individual raise money at events, on the doorstep or in workplaces
  • sell donated goods send appeals for funds through the post or through email
An organisation does not have to be a charity in order to raise funds for good causes. Some charities may raise funds themselves or employ companies or individuals to raise money on their behalf.