More and more, we’re seeing growth in certification and credentialing programs offered by associations. Depending on the industry, many organizations are rolling out certification programs designed to differentiate and distinguish members who desire a higher level of professional achievement or an endorsement for a proven level of expertise.

Certification is an ambitious goal and one that may (or may not) be essential to your organization’s focus. So, before you jump into the certification pool feet-first without a life jacket, follow these eight steps:

1. Know Your Why

Your members are already professionals in their field, right? Consider these questions before developing a program: Have they already achieved an advanced educational degree or employment-level training required to accomplish the requirements of their professional position? Why is certification necessary? Will it lead to employment advancement or increased compensation? Or, is it a “nice to have” but not a “must-have” add-on?

2. Check For Competing Certification Programs

Are there existing professional certification programs already in place that will compete for your members’ attention, investment, or involvement? Survey the landscape as part of your due diligence.

3. Look For Successful Models

Identify certification programs that you and your membership admire and study why they are so successful or widely adopted. Learn about the differences between certification, credentialing, accreditation, and professional registration. Understand the features that make some programs so respected – and evaluate whether those are needed by your membership. The American Society of Association Executives has published several good resources on certification programs.

4. Survey Members

Is there only a small cohort pushing for certification? Ask your membership to tell you whether and why they want your organization to offer such a benefit – and what it is worth to them as an added financial investment.

5. Get Buy-In

This begins with the member survey, but it should also incorporate affiliated organizations and industry employers. Is certification desired by allied groups in your marketplace? Will they recognize the certification as a value-added professional achievement?

6. Do the Math

Understand the obvious costs and the hidden costs of developing a certification program. Not just the ongoing financial investment, but the required investment of staff and volunteer time to figure out the logistics and track certifications.

Are you are able to invest the resources over the next 3-5 years until the program gains traction and becomes financially self-sufficient? Your certification plan should be a 5-year comprehensive undertaking which includes implications on your association’s budget, staff time, and volunteer resources. For a small association, we see conservative estimates ranging from $150,000-$250,000 and five years of solid focus to create a defensible, sustainable certification initiative – from concept to design and testing to launch.

7. Develop A Business Plan

New initiatives must come from new revenue. What are the sources of seed funding to lay the groundwork for certification? Who are your strategic industry, government, or educational partners? If you are serious about certification, then build the team, the budget, and the accountability in such a way that it does not drain or damage your core focus as an organization.

8. Develop a Timeline

Building a certification program with no launch date in mind or on a fast-track is ill-advised. The best approach is to develop manageable phases with incremental goals that are achievable. Build a realistic program that matches the human and financial resources available. If you want to start certification in two years’ time, for example, do the heavy lifting now, in the beginning. And recruit a broad range of volunteers – your certification “believers” – who want to see it happen. If you have been “talking about this for years,” we advise forming and assigning a task force to (a) get serious and execute the strategy or (b) stop making promises you don’t have the capacity to carry out.

Bottom line:

You, your board and your staff need to have the wherewithal, the financial resources, the commitment of volunteers, and the support of members to drive a new certification program from concept to launch. If planned and executed thoughtfully, a well-designed certification program can make a positive impact on your association’s revenue, add member value, and increase member engagement.