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Our Perspective - November 2012

The Power of Certification

By Matthew Broderik, printed March 19, 2012 in the Harford Business Journal
As consumers, we tend to like seals of approval. Whether it’s organic food or energy efficient appliances, we like knowing our investments — both big and small — meet particular certified standards. Increasingly, it seems, people want the same assurances for their charitable donations. It’s a reality that’s driving many nonprofit organizations, including community foundations in Connecticut, to adhere to either statewide or national standards.

And with good reason.

The 14 community foundations in Connecticut alone have more than $1.5 billion in assets under management, according to Nancy Roberts, president of the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy.

"We advise donors to demand standards from community foundations that assure transparency, accountability, and continuous learning (by the foundation board and staff)," Roberts said.

Jim Williamson, president of the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain, knows first-hand how rigorous it can be to meet national standards. In 2006, his organization was one of the first 100 community foundations in the country to achieve certification through the Community Foundations National Standards Board, a national accreditation organization that that measures operational quality, integrity and accountability for community foundations across the U.S. In 2011, Williamson’s organization was re-certified.

While the initial certification process was time-intensive (Williamson estimates he and his staff and board invested nearly nine months of preparation and research in the effort), he feels it was well worth it.

“Funding these days is very competitive and organizations need to distinguish themselves as more than just a good cause, but also as a good business,” he said. “It’s great to have an external, independent entity validate that your organization complies with the highest philanthropic standards.”

Certified standards, of course, are nothing new — particularly among large national organizations such as United Way or Boys & Girls Clubs, which maintain membership criteria for their local, independent affiliates. But there is a growing trend among nonprofit associations — and in some cases, states themselves — to provide more uniform standards for small – to mid-sized nonprofits.

Many of these best practice standards relate to issues ranging from governance and structure to donor relations and gift stewardship. Williamson noted his foundation — and 10 other community foundations in Connecticut accredited through the National Standards Board — needed to meet more than 41 separate standards through the review process. “It’s not a pass/ fail system,” he said. “Meeting 70 percent of the standards isn’t good enough; you need to satisfy 100 percent.”

That’s been a selling point for the Community Foundation of Greater New Britain, which highlights its certification on everything from its website to letterhead and business cards.

“I think [certification] helps build trust and reinforces our reputation with donors,” said Williamson.

And it seems to be working. In fact, Williamson notes that from 2000 through 2005, his organization received about $500,000 a year in donations; since being certified in 2006, however, that average has more than doubled to $1.2 million a year, despite a rockier economy.

“I can’t say that our certification is the primary reason for the increase,” said Williamson, “but it certainly hasn’t hurt.”

Seals of approval, it seems, never do.

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