The Theosophical Society (the Society) was founded in 1875 in New York City and its international headquarters were established in 1886 in India. In England, the Society is a national body with many local branches which spreads publications and provides a range of courses, talks, workshops and events on the topic of Theosophy and similar subjects. Until 2015 the Society operated as an unincorporated association. It then incorporated as a company limited by guarantee and the application was made by that company.
In considering the Society's application for charitable status, the Charities Commission (the Commission) had to consider whether the Society was established for exclusively charitable purposes for the public benefit.
The Society's objects, as stated in their articles are:
"for the public benefit to promote moral and spiritual welfare, and the advancement of education, through the promotion and study of Theosophy"
This was confirmed by the Society to be a modern restatement of the objects used by the Society since 1896, these being:
"i. To form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour.
ii. To encourage the study of comparative Religion, Philosophy and Science.
iii. To investigate unexplained laws of Nature and the powers latent in man."
The original objects have been considered on two separate occasions by the courts, and in each case the courts found that the Society's purposes could not be deemed charitable. In Berry v St Marylebone Corporation  the Court of Appeal held that the Society could not be considered to be for the advancement of religion as "the teaching of the Fatherhood of God and the recognition of the corresponding brotherhood of humanity without distinction of creed appears to us to be, at best, the teaching of a doctrine which is of philosophical or metaphysical conception rather than the advancement of religion." In the earlier case of Re Macaulay's Estate  the first object of the Society was deemed to not be a charitable purpose, as it was understood to simply mean that the Society would form a central body of persons to study and understand the principles of Theosophy.
The Commission concluded that the Society could be registered despite those earlier decisions as:
While the Commission still does not consider the Society's purposes to be for the advancement of religion, they have accepted that they are charitable by analogy for the advancement of the mental and moral improvement of the public, following the approach taken by the courts in the unrelated case of Barralet and others v AG . While there is relatively sparse case law relating to this charitable purpose, the Commission determined that to demonstrate the Society's purposes are for the advancement of mental and moral improvement, the Society had to satisfy the following criteria:
The Commission also considered whether the Society's objects met the requirements of education in charity law. In Berry v St Marylebone Corporation  the Court held that the work of the Society could not be considered education as the Society only provided teaching on the Theosophical doctrine itself. However, the Commission has now accepted that Theosophy as a subject is capable of educative merit for the purposes of charity law. The Commission accepts in its guidance that education has a wide meaning which includes personal development as "the development of an individual's intellectual, physical, emotional and spiritual capabilities are of fundamental value to both the individual and to the health and well-being of the society around them". The Commission concluded that there are therefore aspects of the Society's purpose and work that qualified as advancing education.
The Commission also considered whether the purposes of the Society are capable of delivering public benefit, concluding “the likelihood is that the promulgation of the principles of the Society can be said to benefit society through promoting moral and ethical values”.
Satisfied that the above criteria were met, the Commission determined that the Theosophical Society is a charitable body being established for the promotion of moral or ethical improvement and the advancement of education.
This decision illustrates that it can be useful to review carefully whether your organisation is established for charitable purposes or is capable of being restructured to meet the requirements for registration as a charity, even where you have failed to secure registration in the past.