Societies, Charities, and Federal Not-For-Profit Corporations - What's the Difference? (Societies Act FAQs)

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This information applies to British Columbia, Canada. Last reviewed for legal accuracy by Pacific Legal Education and Outreach Society (PLEO) in May 2021.

What is a society?

In British Columbia, a non-profit organization is called a society. Societies are governed by a piece of legislation called the Societies Act, SBC 2015, c 18. The Societies Act sets out the rules and procedures for incorporating, managing, and dissolving a non-profit in British Columbia. Societies are registered with BC Registries through the Societies Online website. Societies have less stringent reporting requirements than charities, but they cannot issue tax receipts for donations. A society can operate a business to support its purposes. Societies may have a wide range of purposes, including non-charitable purposes like sports and social clubs. For more information on incorporation, keep reading these FAQs or see the Registrar’s Guide to Non-Profit Societies.

What is a charity?

Charities are registered with the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA). Charities can issue tax receipts for donations, but they have more stringent reporting requirements than societies. It can take 9-12 months to become a registered charity and is a major undertaking. A charity’s activities must be exclusively charitable. There are also only four purposes the CRA accepts for charities: advancement of education; relief of poverty; advancement of religion; other purposes beneficial to the community (e.g. health, environment). According to CRA policy, while a charity can run a business, it must be either run substantially by volunteers or linked and subordinate to the charity’s purpose. An organization will usually have to be legally established (i.e. incorporated) before it can apply for charitable status. This means that it is possible for some societies with appropriate charitable purposes and activities to later register for charitable status. For more information on registering for charitable status, see the CRA’s Charity Registration FAQs, the CRA’s Charity Registration Guide and Charity Central.

What is a federal not-for-profit corporation?

Federal not-for-profit corporations are incorporated federally under the Canada Not-For-profit Corporations Act, SC 2009, c 23. Most federal not-for-profit corporations have ongoing operations in more than one province or territory.

Key Differences between Federal Not-for-profit Corporations and BC Societies

Topic Federal Not-for-profit Corporation BC Society (non-member funded)
Constitution Contains name, purposes, registered office location, range of directors, restrictions on activities, liquidation clause Contains name and purposes only
Bylaws Directors may make, amend, and repeal bylaws to be approved by members Voting members pass bylaw amendments at general meetings
Directors Minimum one director; must have a public accountant on the board if soliciting corporation Minimum three directors, one of whom resides in BC
Financial Review Requirements Stringency of review depends on amount of revenue - can be onerous; members may waive audit if revenue below $50,000 Not required to have an audit unless required by the members or the bylaws (or by funders)
Financial Disclosures Must prepare financial statements every calendar year; Must send summary financial statements to members prior to AGM Must prepare financial statements every calendar year; Must disclose top 10 employees, directors, or contractors paid over $75,000 per year; Directors can only by paid if bylaws permit; Must provide financial statements to members of public upon request
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