The Charity Commission for Northern Ireland has written to about 7,500 charities to ask for basic information as a first step towards setting up its register of charities.
The letter, which has been sent to all Northern Ireland-based organisations that are registered as charities with HM Revenue & Customs, asks for details of their annual incomes and their contact information.
It warns that all organisations carrying out the types of charitable work described in the Charities Act (Northern Ireland) 2008 will be legally required to seek charitable status, regardless of whether they want to have the tax benefits linked to charitable status.
The letter also says it is not yet clear when registration will begin, because it cannot start the process until a legislative change to the act has been passed.
The change will clarify that the Northern Irish commission will use the criteria for charitable status used in England and Wales rather than in Scotland. This was previously unclear because it combined aspects of law from both pieces of legislation.
The letter from the commission’s chief executive, Frances McCandless, says: "We anticipate registration will begin in 2011 and it is therefore important that we make the necessary preparations."
It says the commission will ask 20 organisations to "test drive" its online registration process.
The commission announced last year that no organisation would be listed on its register until its charitable status had been vetted.
This approach differs from that of the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator, which put all Scottish organisations from HMRC's database onto its charity register when it was established in 2006, and is reviewing them on a rolling basis.