The legal definition of a charitable organisation (and of charity) varies between countries and in some instances regions of the country. The regulation, the tax treatment, and the way in which charity law affects charitable organizations also vary. Charitable organizations may not use any of its funds to profit individual persons or entities.
Financial figures (e.g. tax refund, revenue from fundraising, revenue from sale of goods and services or revenue from investment) are indicators to assess the financial sustainability of a charity, especially to charity evaluators. This information can impact a charity's reputation with donors and societies, and thus the charity's financial gains.
Until the mid-18th century, charity was mainly distributed through parish relief (such as the English poor laws of 1601), churches, almshouses and bequests from the rich. Charities were also responsible for education, health, housing and even prisons. Almshouses were established throughout Europe in the Early Middle Ages to provide a place of residence for poor, old and distressed people; the first recorded almshouse was founded in York by King Athelstan in the 10th century.
It was in the Enlightenment era that charitable and philanthropic activity among voluntary associations and rich benefactors became a widespread cultural practice. Societies, gentleman's clubs, and mutual associations began to flourish in England and the upper-classes increasingly adopted a philanthropic attitude toward the disadvantaged. This new social activism was channeled into the establishment of charitable organizations; these proliferated from the middle of the century.