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Published by Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations

TFN is published by the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, Mansfield Traquair Centre, 15 Mansfield Place, Edinburgh, EH3 6BB. The Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) is a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation. Registration number SC003558.

Staying true to purpose


Jude Turbyne examines the risk of 'mission drift' for organisations

One of the principal responsibilities of being a charity trustee is to ensure that your charity remains true to its charitable purposes.

You can find your charity’s purposes in its governing document or online on the Scottish Charity Register. The purposes are there for any member of the public to see.

It is good practice for the charity trustees to review a charity’s purposes every few years. There is a risk of what is called ‘mission drift’, where over time the charity has taken on new activities that no longer reflect the purposes. It can happen surprisingly easily, often with the best of intentions.

The reality for many charities is that what they do changes over time. A well-run charity responds to the changing needs of those they support and takes advantage of opportunities that come along.

During the pandemic, charities have shown great creativity in supporting their communities, sometimes changing what they do.  For instance, a charity that runs a village social club is unable to do so, so it finds other ways of supporting isolated older villagers. In this case, the club has changed its activities, but has remained true to its purpose. In other cases, charities have made more radical changes, changing their charitable purposes accordingly. 

It is important when making these changes to look at the wording of a charity’s purposes.  They may be quite general, meaning there is plenty of scope for designing new activities. However, watch out for anything that limits your options. For example, if purposes refer to providing benefit in a particular location or to people of a certain age range be sure to stick to that.

If the purposes need to be updated, what then?  This needs OSCR’s prior consent. We need to be satisfied that proposed new purposes are still charitable and meet the ‘charity test’.  You can find guidance on our website about making changes to purposes and can also find tips on how to write purposes in our Meeting the Charity Test guidance.

Charities may want to change purposes quickly as to respond to the current crisis.  If this is the case then please let us know on the application.  We will look at your application for consent as quickly as possible.

In some circumstances, updating the purposes will not be enough. As a body of trustees, you should always be thinking about how best your charity’s purposes can be achieved. This might include pooling resources by working in partnership with other charities or possibly even merging with them. You do not need to ask us if you want to work with others but a formal amalgamation requires our consent.

For some, the hard reality may be that it has become impossible to continue. That the only way to honour the charitable purposes is to wind up the charity and pass any remaining assets to another body that can use them effectively. Again, this can only be done with our consent and please take advice before doing so.



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