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What is a governing document?

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The key legal document in a charitable organisation is its governing document

The governing document sets out the charity's objects or purposes and how it is to be administered.

The document, as well as the titles of the trustees, may be different depending on the type of charity, but the most common terms are: 

Legal form of charityGoverning documentUsual title of the charity's trustee

Unincorporated association or society

Constitution or rules

Management committee members

Charitable trust 

Trust deed 




Charitable company limited by guarantee (an incorporated charity)

Memorandum and Articles of Association



Charitable incorporated organisation (CIO)



Contents of the governing document

Your governing document contains all the information needed to run a charity, such as:

  • what the charity is set up to do (known as its 'objects')
  • how the charity will do those things (known as 'powers')
  • who will run the organisation (the trustees, directors, the board or management committee)
  • how it is to be run and administrative arrangements for meetings, voting, looking after money, delegation to sub-committees etc
  • what happens if administrative provisions need to be changed
  • what happens if the charity wishes or needs to wind up.

Compliance requirements

Charities are legally required to comply with their governing document. This includes ensuring that:

  • the charity's activities remain within the objects set out in the governing document
  • any new activities are permitted within the objects
  • the trustee body is properly and legally constituted
  • trustees have a sound knowledge and understanding of the governing document.

Further help and advice

Sample governing documents on the Charity Commission website

See our setting up a charity pages for more information on getting started and legal forms and structures

Why not try the Make your board effective Knowhow e-learning training course?

Page last edited Sep 03, 2019
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Charity law

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