Key terms: Community organisations

The terminology used in relation to community organisations can be confusing.

“Not-for-profit” organisations

“Not-for-profit” and “non-profit” are terms used in relation to organisations in which any profit made must be used to benefit or further the aims of the organisation. These terms do not mean the organisation cannot make a profit (surplus); all groups need to at least break-even or make a small profit to remain solvent (i.e. viable). Instead, “not-for-profit” refers to a restriction on what profit can be used for; namely, profit cannot be distributed to the members on the basis of their membership. This is known as the distribution constraint. The difference between a business (for profit) and a not-for-profit organisation is what happens with the profit they make.

More information is available from the Australian Taxation Office (see


All charities have to be not-for-profit organisations, but not all not-for-profit organisations are charities. There are around 600,000 not-for-profit groups in Australia but only about 10 per cent of these satisfy the legal definition of a charity. Of these, about 54,000 charities are registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission (ACNC).

Charity and charitable purposes are defined in the Charities Act 2013 (Cth) (“Charities Act”), with other variations of the definition in state legislation and local government laws.

It is important to know if your group is a charity or not because it affects whether the group needs to register with the ACNC to access charity tax concessions and other benefits (seeTax concessions”).

“Rules” or “constitution”

A not-for-profit organisation’s rules (sometimes called a “constitution”) govern the internal affairs of the organisation. This is usually a written document covering how the organisation operates – including an organisation’s purpose, membership, meetings, governance, use of funds and winding-up. Some legal structures, like incorporated associations, have minimum requirements that must be dealt with in an organisation’s rules.