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Charity is a term with several distinct, but related, meanings. The term is usually traced to the Latin caritas, one of several Latin words for love (along with eros and agapé. The second, related meaning of charity alludes to action based in (love?), especially care for, or concern about, others.

In law, the concept of "charitable" purpose has a technical meaning growing out of the second definition, which is still not quite the same as the way that the word is used in normal language. This leads to unending confusion in discussions of charity. In common law jurisdictions, the concept derives loosely from the meandering list of charitable purposes in the Statute of Charitable Uses 1601, interpreted and expanded in a considerable body of case law. (The Statute of Charitable Uses and the more well-known Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601 were adopted by Parliament in the same year.) In a British court ruling, Commissioners for Special Purposes of Income Tax v Pemsel (1891), Lord McNaughten identified four main categories of charity: (1) relief of poverty, (2) the advancement of education, (3) the advancement of religion, and (4) other purposes considered beneficial to the community.

Reflecting the ambiguities in the term charity in law and culture, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) uses the term public charity to define a broad class of nonprofit corporations, distinguished from other tax-exempt entities also known as nonprofits.

Section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Service code defines charitable purpose in the following manner:

Corporations, and any community chest, fund, or foundation, organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, scientific, testing for public safety, literary, or educational purposes, or to foster national or international amateur sports competition (but only if no part of its activities involve the provision of athletic facilities or equipment), or for the prevention of cruelty to children or animals, no part of the net earnings of which inures to the benefit of any private shareholder or individual, no substantial part of the activities of which is carrying on propaganda, or otherwise attempting, to influence legislation (except as otherwise provided in subsection (h)), and which does not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distributing of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.