Three Ways Your Association Can Build and Strengthen a Certification Program

by Callie Walker

When it comes to credentialing and certification programs, there are many advantages awarded to both the association and the professionals who pursue them. In fact, American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) researchers report benefits to associations that sponsored or administered a credential include: reinforced value of the association, increased visibility of the association to the general public, increased loyalty of members, and even income earned from fees, products, and services related to the credential program. Professionals enjoy an elevated reputation, community and connections among credential holders, and supported compliance with external standards.

While credentialing programs can strengthen the value proposition for an association and its members, they are also complicated and potentially expensive. If your board of directors does not understand the commitment needed to make the program a success—and the financial realities of building and managing a robust certification program—then the credential will likely fail, and potentially drain the association of a significant amount of financial resources.

Here are a few things your association can do to build and maintain a strong certification program.

1. Be strategic about cost, content, and governance.

Before thinking about starting your certification program, your association’s board of directors should ask itself the following questions:

  • Has demand for a credential come from members, or is it a revenue-generating idea?
  • Will the training and curriculum be so good that it generates word of mouth marketing?
  • Does your association have the resources to hire professionals who are experts in credentialing to help design the program?
  • How soon does your association need the program to be profitable?
  • Does the board understand that the program will likely run at a loss before it starts making money?

Before proceeding, your association should create a business and marketing plan specifically for your new certification.

Establishing a certification program that can break even on costs as fast as possible is challenging, but there are steps a board can take that can accelerate the path to certification success. One way to be strategic about your investment when building a certification program is to recruit expert volunteers to help design the content.

The incentive for members and volunteers to donate their time designing certification curriculum is significant. There are few greater acknowledgments of expertise than being asked to help design your industry’s new credential. Volunteers should also be encouraged to join the faculty of the program.

Your board should also engage a certification consultant to help design your association’s new credential, though that will add additional costs and require a more aggressive marketing effort to help the certification break-even faster.

Separating governance of your certification program also helps your association make decisions that can advance the growth of the program without damaging its credibility.

2. The certification should have a clear, easy-to-understand value proposition.

Associations need to clearly, simply, and articulately convey the value of certification to members and prospective members. Creating (or maintaining) a certification solely because it adds one more non-dues revenue stream is not good enough.

A certification needs a good reason for its existence, and that reason needs to be grounded in the way the certification makes industry professionals better at their job and more marketable in their industry. Credentialing programs must lead to a direct improvement in a member’s job prospects or career advancement.

Letters behind a name are nice, but members will only pay for those letters if they lead to a direct benefit.

Too often associations market a certification by emphasizing the wrong things, like the rigor of the certification process. That process is important, but emphasizing the difference certification made to the member’s career or business will truly drive growth in a certification program.

3. Market the certification to the end-user.

One of the biggest factors in a certification’s success is raising awareness among the public using your member’s services. If your members know customers or stakeholders will only do business with or hire them if they are certified, those members are far more likely to become certified.

For example, if your members belong to the (fictional) Association of Computer Recycling Companies, communicating the value of being a Certified Computer Recycler to the people who hire Computer Recyclers is important.

Why?

Because the next time a non-certified computer recycler calls a potential sales lead and hears, “Sorry, we only work with Certified Computer Recyclers”, the chances they become certified increase.

Associations face increased competition and premising a value proposition solely on benefits that can be found—in one form or another—online or on social media will result in an association that struggles to stay relevant.

Your members will not find a strong, relevant, career-advancing certification program on YouTube or LinkedIn.

But they can find it with your association.

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