Charity VAT can be complex . Not only do they have to deal with the normal VAT rules that apply to all VAT registered businesses but they also have to cope with issues that most don’t. For example charities often have to consider if their activities are business for VAT purposes and also deal with some special VAT treatments that just apply to them.

This guide is designed to give a technical overview of some charity VAT issues. Charity VAT is rarely simple  and if you have any questions get in touch. I produce an occasional free newsletter on charity VAT matters. If you would like to subscribe then subscribe here

If you are a Charity and want to see if I can help you then look at my services for charities page here

Is a Charity in Business for VAT Purposes

‘Business’ is an important concept in VAT as it determines if VAT must be charged and if it can be recovered. Commercial organisations are generally self evidently in business but very often a charity will undertake non business activities. this is sometimes, although incorrectly described as making non business supplies.

There have been numerous cases on the meaning of business for VAT but unfortunately the judgments sometimes appear contradictory. The normal approach taken by the courts is to look objectively at what a charity does. If it is providing goods or services in return for something (usually money) then it is seen as being in business. Yet in some cases the courts have paid more attention to the reasons behind the activity and found that a charity may not be in business even if it makes supplies. Recent examples of cases where this approach has been taken are Capenwray and Longridge. For a commentary on Longridge see here.

Generally HMRC take the view that if a charity makes supplies it is in business ; but this can be challenged if the facts are right.


VAT Treatment of Grants and Contracts

Probably the most common VAT question for a charity is whether it must charge VAT on income. Is it a contract or grant for VAT purposes.  If the income is a true grant that is outside the scope of VAT then any activity wholly funded by it will be  non business.

In some cases the answer to the grant/contract question is obvious. For example a charity might provide free tours but ask for donations from its visitors. With there being no obligation for the visitor to pay, clearly the money received is  outside the scope of VAT. At the other extreme a charity may enter into a formal contract to provide services where it states that the money will be consideration for the supply.

The difficultly is that many cases fall between these two extremes. Grants often cause difficulty. Increasingly grant funding agreements are written in terms that resemble contracts with strict service level agreements (SLAs) and break clauses. This raises the question of whether money paid under these agreements is outside the scope of VAT and akin to a donation or should be seen as a payment for a supply. In deciding the VAT treatment in such cases the facts are critical.

Recovery for Grant Funded Activities

If an activity is wholly funded by income that is outside the scope of VAT such as grants or donations it will be  a non business activity. VAT is not charged on the grant income received but neither can it be recovered on costs incurred.

Where an activity is partly funded by grants and partly by admission charges or other fees sometimes HMRC attempt to apply an apportionment. This is probably incorrect and there have been a number of cases which demonstrate that a subsidised activity can still be a wholly business activity. An important European case on this was Sveda where a subsidised park was allowed full VAT recovery see Sveda Case.

Other recent cases on apportionemnt include Durham Cathedral and Wills Wood

The VAT Treatment of Sponsorship

Difficulties can also occur with sponsorship income. If a local supporter gives a donation and demands no acknowledgement then the money they give is clearly outside the scope. The problem occurs if the donor insists on recognition. Here it is often arguable if VAT is chargeable. HMRC will generally not see a grant making organisation that insists on recognition (such as national lottery funding) as receiving a supply but might well take a different view if the funder is a commercial organisation that benefits from the publicity. A good source on information about the VAT rules applying to charities is the Charity Tax Group. For information see their website
For more on the VAT treatment of Grants and Contracts see my webpage :Grants and Contracts

Charity VAT Recovery

Very often VAT recovery is the most complicated part of a charity VAT accounting. Charities can rarely recover all of the VAT they incur.  I have information on how VAT recovery works. See VAT Recovery

Must a Charity be Registered for VAT

The same VAT registration rules apply to charities that apply to any business. They must register if their taxable supplies exceed the VAT registration limit. This means that income which is outside the scope of VAT such as grants and donations not count. Neither does income that is VAT exempt such as that obtained under a welfare contract. What will count is taxable sales such as merchandise, consultancy or publications.

In some cases it may pay a charity to voluntarily register for VAT. This may be the case if the charges it makes with VAT will be to another organisation that can recover VAT. This is because it will allow the charity to recover any VAT it incurs on that activity. Another situation where VAT registration will be beneficial is if the charity makes taxable sales that are subsidised and will be able to recover more VAT that it needs to charge. In practice there  are pros and cons for charity VAT registration – you have to balance the potential VAT gain against admin costs.

Very often it is the trading subsidy of a charity that is obliged to be  VAT registered rather than the charity. In this case it may pay to seek a VAT group registration that covers both the charity and trading subsidiary.

Special Treatments

charity VATCharity Fundraising Events

There is a VAT exemption for charity fundraising events. This allows all supplies made at an event to be treated as VAT exempt, unless they are zero rated. The exemption can be applied to up to 15 events in the same place each year and can apply to any type of event. It is possible to organise events in a VAT friendly way, thereby enabling at least the partial recovery of VAT incurred on the costs of organising them.  The HMRC notice their view of the exemption see  Fundraising Events

Zero Rated Sales of Donated Goods

Charities can sell goods donated to them at the zero rate. This allows the recovery of VAT incurred on selling such goods by charity shops. However the zero rate will not apply when the charity uses the retail gift aid scheme as in this case the charity is receiving a donation from the donor, on whose behalf the goods have been sold.

VAT Cultural Exemption

Charities organising cultural events may well be able to take advantage of the VAT cultural exemption. In this case the key issue for them will be VAT recovery. For the HMRC notice then see  HMRC Notice 701/47 culture

Charity VAT Construction Zero Rates

Some charity construction work can be purchased free of VAT. The rules here require that the building be used solely for a non business purpose. Although HMRC allow up to 5% business use, in practice many charities find this a difficult test to meet.

VAT on Charity Advertising

There is a zero rate for the purchase of charity advertising which means that charities can buy advertising and the services of producing an advert free of VAT. The relief only applies to charities and not their trading subsidiaries. It also only applies to adverts placed in spacer owned by a third party, so you can use it to get a website redesigned for example. It also applies to all types of adverts including recruitment adverts. When adverts are purchased from abroad and a VAT reveres charge applies – as might be the case with say a Google Ad then the zero rate still applies.

In my experience charities often don’t make full use of this relief. This maybe because the suppliers are unaware that it applies – if you are charged VAT on an advert query why.

The HMRC Notice on Charity Advertising can be found here  Notice 701/58 Charity Advertising