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Accreditation: Is it right for your organization?

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To become accredited or not? That is a question on the minds of a number of nonprofit organizations at the moment - and not just the larger ones.

What is accreditation?

The accreditation process acknowledges that your organization has successfully completed a peer review by an objective third party, met (or exceeded) the accreditor’s pre-established quality standards and demonstrated excellence in areas including but not limited to: board governance, client programs and services, employee and volunteer engagement, internal business processes, financial responsibility and fund development. The concept is similar to the private sector’s “ISO” (International Organization Standardization) certification process.

Why do organizations choose to become accredited?

In Start With Why, Simon Sinek says people do business with people who believe in what they do. Do the people your organization serves, as well as your community partners, believe in what you do and share your same sense of purpose?

Are your funders asking for documented outcomes (e.g. a Balanced Scorecard or Dashboard) with Key Performance Indicators and metrics related to person-centred programs and services? Do you want to show you have engaged employees and volunteers working within a learning organization? Can you prove that you use quality systems and internal processes based on global best practices and are committed to financial sustainability?

Are you in a sub-section of the nonprofit sector where amalgamations are being discussed because multiple agencies are providing similar services to a similar client base in a similar geographical area and are seeking support from the same funders?

Increasingly, a wide range of organizations are choosing to become accredited as they answer these questions.

How does the accreditation process work?

Accreditation is an unbiased, comprehensive assessment of the quality of an organization’s programs and services by an independent accreditor. When successful, the organization and its stakeholders know that it has achieved a nationally recognized standard of high quality organizational excellence.

The overall process is comprised of two key steps: a self-assessment by the organization and then an on-site validation by the accreditor’s team of professionals.

What does it take to get there?

It does take time and effort to prepare for your first accreditation, but it’s an investment in your organization’s on-going sustainability. Once that foundation has been laid, updating is much easier.

If you’re not the executive director, build your business case, confirm buy-in from your organization's leaders and advise your board of directors of your plan.

Establish a small team that is representative of a wide range of stakeholders to lead your organization through the accreditation process. This is an excellent opportunity to engage high performing staff at all levels to work collaboratively on a strategic project and to continue their learning and development.

Choose an accreditor. There are some resources at the end of this article to help with this process, but remember to “recruit” your accreditation partner as you would any other role. Do your research and discuss the process with at least one organization in your sector that has already been accredited. Why did they choose to go through the process? Why did they choose the accreditor they did? What went well? What didn’t go so well? How much time and how many resources did they actually invest in the process? What did they learn? What did they value most from the process? The service provider that shares your values will likely be the best fit for you.

Whichever accreditor you choose, you’ll be given a self-assessment questionnaire to help you prepare. This will help you identify which of the accreditor’s standards you currently meet, partially meet and do not meet.

You’ll draft an action plan to help you plot out how you plan to meet all standards, what resources (both human and financial) you’ll need to invest in the process and a realistic time frame (approximately one year of preparation is typical for a first accreditation). Your accreditor can provide both resources and coaching along the way. There are additional resources to consider, so you’re not re-inventing the wheel, listed at the end of this article.

When you’re ready, your accreditor will send a team of professionals to meet with your stakeholders on-site to review policies and procedures and to ask questions about actual practices. Most organizations express some anxiety about this but soon discover they’re offered valuable coaching to position them for success. Don't be afraid that you'll be subjected to an “exam” with trick questions!

The team of accreditors sends a report with their findings, both in the areas your organization performed well and those areas that might need to be addressed for the future. This report becomes a reference document, not only for continuous quality improvement, but also for organizational knowledge transfer and succession management. When your organization is able to post “accredited” on your web site and in your workplace it boosts your brand and creates a sense of pride for all stakeholders.

Our experience with accreditation: Domestic Abuse Services Oxford (DASO)

Rhonda Hendel, the executive director of DASO, offers her tips for a successful accreditation process:

1. Choose your accreditation agency carefully. Research those who have written standards for your sector and those who understand your work and challenges.

2. Take the time to educate all stakeholders – staff, the board and your community partners - about how this process will make your agency the best at what you do. For a small agency, you may be a “one-ring circus” so this step is critical as the buy-in of staff and your board is needed for a successful outcome. For example, DASO has a hard-working staff with an excellent management team. They assist as their work responsibilities allow but more important, they have taken on some of my duties to free up my time.

3. Get help. Preparing for accreditation takes time - lots of time! If you are a small agency seriously consider hiring someone to help with the workload and mounds of paperwork that accreditation creates.

4. You may believe your agency has a foundation of acceptable policies and procedures to build on. I did. Accreditation will relieve you of this fantasy. As you make your way through the process, you may discover that many of your policies and procedures are lacking in content and consistency. Accreditation will make you rethink every single thing you do in your workplace and that is a good thing!

5. Your accreditation agency is a great resource and support. Their job is to research and document best practices for your field of work. Take advantage of their expertise.

6. If you have not previously worked in an accredited agency, consider taking validator training (validators are the on-site people who come and collect the evidence and observe your agency). I did this training well into my agency’s process and in hindsight it would have helped me understand the process and expectations of accreditation earlier.

7. Don’t get copies of policies and procedures from other agencies. You will think this will help but my experience is that this just added confusion and wasted time. Rather, carefully study the standard, think about the work that your agency is currently doing in that area and where you want to be in a few years. Then write your own agency-specific policy, documentation, forms, and processes based on what is best for your users and for your community. This takes more time but you will have a better outcome.

8. Keep your primary funders informed of your progress. They have a big stake in your agency and will be interested in the process.

9. Organize your accreditation “stuff” carefully from Day 1. Otherwise you will spend time trying to find what you know you already did six months ago. A recommendation is to employ the same numbering and organization system as the accreditation domains and standards to make it easier to retrieve information.

10. Do it! Try accreditation. It will be an accomplishment for your agency and for you. If you are not entirely successful in your first attempt, you will have a clear road map to follow to reach the goal. Good luck!

Pros and cons of accreditation

Pros:

  • Investing in your organization’s future; seeing “accredited” inspires confidence in your stakeholders.
  • Showcasing your organization’s excellence, quality, transparency and accountability as evaluated by an objective third party
  • Focusing on client-centred programs and services
  • Engaging employees and volunteers in high performing teams
  • Increasing each team member’s learning and growth; strengthen as a Learning Organization; manage and transfer key knowledge
  • Decreasing silos via systems thinking and process mapping
  • Maximizing the effectiveness, efficiency, economy and equity of all internal business processes
  • Tailoring global best practices to suit your culture
  • Ensuring financial accountability, transparency and sustainability
  • Boosting funding (government, donors, social enterprise); people want to do business with people who think like they do; accreditation reinforces their trust to invest in you

Cons:

There is really only one draw back to the accreditation process: - The prep year does take time, resources and effort which some may see as a cost.

Additional resources

Accreditors

Other resources

Lee Anderson, principal of Lee Anderson & Associates, has been a sole practitioner for the past 15 years. Her practice, which serves both not for profits and entrepreneurs, focuses on strategic HR, Organizational Effectiveness and Career Assessment and Coaching.

Rhonda Hendel is executive director of Domestic Abuse Services Oxford, an agency serving women and children impacted by domestic abuse and/or homelessness located in Woodstock, Ontario.

Photos (from top) via iStock.com. All photos used with permission.

Please note: While we ensure that all links and email addresses are accurate at their publishing date, the quick-changing nature of the web means that some links to other websites and email addresses may no longer be accurate.

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