Investigating Charities & Non-Profits.

Charities and Non-profit companies have become a major part of delivering public services. You will find these organisations operating in health care, education, culture and more, yet there seems to be very little media scrutiny into how these companies operate, this could be because they are often seen as small-scale and acting in the public interest – this is not always the case.

The last time you struggled to slot together a brain busting puzzle in the form of a flat pack bookshelf did you know that you were supporting “innovations in architecture and interior design”?

That is the aim of the Ingka Foundation, the tax exempt, non-profit trust that owns Ingka Holding – the parent company of all Ikea companies.

Yes, the home of Meatballs and cheap chairs is a charity, and quite a big one too, The Economist estimates the trusts net worth to be around $36 billion, making it even larger than the Gates Foundation.

(I’ve simplified this example, but you can read the full Economist article here)

So how to we investigate these organisations?
Firstly lets look at how the two types of organisations operate:

Charities – operate under The Charities Act 2006, the key element of which is that they have to operate for charitable purposes. There are 4 core ways in which a charities are legally structured:

Non-Profit – Most operate legally as a company limited by guarantee this means that instead of distributing profits to members they keep the profit within the organisation or use it for another specific reason.

If you intend to investigate either type of organisation your first stop should be the organisations own website. Their website should give details of their aims and objectives, how they intend to achieve these aims, a list of key staff members & trustees and financial information such as annual reports. Most organisations should be more than happy to share this information, even if it’s not published on their website, if they are not willing to share this information it may suggest that something is not quite right.

Most charities will be registered with the Charity Commission (England & Wales) or the The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator (Scotland). These bodies exist to regulate charities and to ensure they operate within relevant laws. They operate a list of regulated charities and publish documents related to each one (such as annual accounts). There are some exceptions such as Academy schools, which are regulated by Department for Education (DfE). It’s worth noting that all three regulatory bodies are subject to the Freedom of Information act, which means that you may be able to uncover information about a charities compliance with the Charities Act 2006.

Regardless of whether or not the organisation you are investigating is registered as a charity, it is worth searching the records at Companies House to find further information.

Once you have the basic information on the organisation some of the things to look out for include:

Who’s running the organisation? what else are they involved in?

How is the organisation spending money? Staff salaries? Administration costs? – How much money goes towards the aims of the organisation?

Is the charity / non-profit org benefiting a corporation or individual? -This could be done through various means including procurement or even through the use of volunteers in place of paid workers.

(for example a drug company director might establish a charity to procure drugs from the drug company for distribution to developing countries)   

This is a brief introduction to investigating charities / non-profits, I’m sure you’ll have some more ideas and It’d be great to see those ideas in the comments. 

6 thoughts on “Investigating Charities & Non-Profits.

  1. Anna Haynes

    In practice, do charities get stripped of their charitable status if they’re actually acting to "diseducate" the public?

  2. Chris Dodd

    Hey Anna.The Charities Act 2006 defines the charitable purpose for education as: "the advancement of education".Sections 2(4)(b) & 2(4)(c) of the act imply that a charity would only need to act within the ‘spirit’ of this definition. It would therefore seem that there is quite a broad range of activities that this could apply to. I’m not sure how you could argue a charity is acting to ‘diseducate’ the public? However such failings would need to be investigated and judged by the regulatory body.A list of case reports from the Charities Commission can be found here: (you have to contact them to request individual reports) As far as I’m aware there are no open and public records of sources of donations made to a charity.

  3. NeilAberdeen

    Other useful tools include – which, although it doesn’t play nicely with the web and requires a login, does have company/charity information in considerable depth including historical financial data and links to past and present directors with connections to their business interests and timelines. covers similar ground in less depth, but may eventually be more open and have an API.

  4. Chris Dodd

    With reference to Academy Trusts (the charities who run academy schools) I’ve been sent this information from Young People’s Learning Agency:"Dear ChrisThe legal background to this is that on 1 August 2011 all Academy Trusts became exempt charities under section 12(4) of the Academies Act 2010. Exempt charities are subject to the same legal rules as other charities but are exempt from regulation by, and hence cannot register with, the Charity Commission. Instead exempt charities are generally regulated by some other body or authority. The Principal Regulator for Academy Trusts is the Secretary of State for Education, with the YPLA as his agent. Following the change to exempt status Academy Trusts have now been removed from the register of charities maintained by the Charity Commission. The Charity Commission’s website reflects this change. Academies are no longer required to submit an annual report and financial statements to the Charity Commission, but must continue to do so to Companies House and the YPLA. However, Academy Trusts retain the benefits and responsibilities of charitable status. For further guidance see the Commission’s website:Guidance on the regulation of Academies as charities: guidance on exempt charities: MillerAcademies Directorate"


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