Beyond Mobile Event Apps – What’s Next?

By Hunter Clemens, CAE, CMP, AMG/MMG Vice President

Hunter Clemens, CAE, CMP

Now that you have finally integrated an event app into your meeting or event, you may be wondering “what’s next?” Meeting and event organizers are constantly looking for more ways to engage attendees. It is increasingly more important to create an “experience” for the attendee. The more engaged they are, the better the experience. In fact, at this year’s meetings and events industry gatherings, there has been a focus on experience design. Event planners are no longer just able to manage the logistics of an event – they also have to focus on attendee engagement and help to design the experience. The event professionals at Meetings Management Group (MMG) stay abreast of the new developments in event technology so that we can work with the event stakeholders to ensure that the attendee experience is designed to meet their expectations. Certainly, “one size does not fit all” so in the explore and design phase, we work with you to determine which technology will work best with your particular attendees.

Naturally, the mobile event application is an essential tool to help improve attendee engagement so do not look for it to go away, rather, you will see more creative ways to use them and enhance the attendee experience. Event mobile application companies are investing more capital into their products to extend the life cycle of engagement beyond the event to a year-round engagement. Not only do they replace the typical onsite paper program, manage schedules, interact with social media and provide a list of attendees, but also, they are now being improved and designed to take full advantage of the expanding technical capabilities of smart phones. Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) sensors including iBeacons can track attendee movements throughout a meeting facility and local area to provide a wide range of assistance such as location-aware information and directions. For example, DoubleDutch is using beacons with their app for a range of services including welcome notification/directions, precise in-room polling (with a pop-up link directed only to the attendees in the specific meeting room), networking and other options.

Wearables

Among the forefront of these advances are “wearables.” These devices can take the form of a wrist-band or coin-sized disc that is inserted into the attendee badge. Using beacon technology, event organizers can track attendee movement and gather valuable data to help improve their events. Imagine analyzing attendee behavior to improve the experience design on the spot! And, a careful analysis of the data will set the stage for an even better experience design in the following year.

Exhibitors can learn which attendees are more interested in their products and services because it will give them data to know which individuals spent the greatest amount of time in their booth or area. They can be used to record participation for CEUs or CMEs.

Privacy

Of course, there are attendees that are concerned with privacy so it is important to educate them prior to the event about the wearable devices or modules that track movement in an event app. If you educate them ahead of time and explain how the data is being used to enhance their attendee experience or record their CEUs and/or CMEs, most people will participate. Nevertheless, attendees must be given the opportunity to opt out.

The team of meeting professionals at MMG are well-versed in these advances in event technology, so be certain to explore with us ways to improve your experience design for your next meeting or event.

Myth: People Read on the Web

By Teresa B. Gutsick, Creative Director, AMG

Teresa B. Gutsick

“No one reads.”

This is a phrase that designers use to try to get their clients to edit their website and email text. While the designer may have an ulterior motive that probably includes more room for eye-catching imagery— it is a truism in the Internet age that we now have shorter attention spans than goldfish. A study done in 2015 by Microsoft Corp. found that people tend to lose concentration after just eight seconds. The average attention span for a goldfish is nine seconds. That is very little time to get your reader’s attention.

We are overwhelmed with the written word online. Twenty-seven million pieces of content are shared every day on the Internet. People are constantly reading: email, social media, text messages, websites, blogs.

One response to the avalanche of wordiness online has been the increased use of video, seen with the rise of YouTube, Snapchat, Vimeo, Vine and others. However, even video frequently includes subtitles now, because the user may be in a situation where they can’t listen to the audio.

Designers to the Rescue

This overabundance of words means that the competition for attention is stiff and so the design world has responded with the more minimal designs you are seeing on the Web today. Designs that include:

  • Large “hero” images at the top of websites, and more imagery in general throughout pages. (The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum website is a great example.)
  • Flat Design – the omission of any modeling on buttons or page graphics in favor of plain colored boxes (think the iPhone interface or the Windows 10 tiled design)
    flat-design-web-design
  • Simplistic email designs with large imagery and very little text. Many of the most popular online email applications like MailChimp and Constant Contact provide templates that allow for very little text content.
    SimpleEmailExample
  • Infographics that can be used to illustrate statistics and trends at a glance

Stemming the Flood of Words

If you want to make your organization’s communications more effective and prevent your members from being overwhelmed with your verbose tsunami, you need to put your content on a word diet.

Websites

Don’t expect people to read content that seems neither easily scannable nor relevant for them. Long text blocks, unnecessary instructions, promotional writing and “smalltalk” should be avoided on the web. People only read word-by-word when they are truly interested in the content. They tend to skim pages looking at headings, short paragraphs and lists. Therefore, web pages need to be stripped down to the essentials. Convey information that is of value. Pay attention to length, format and the voice of your content. Make sure your content is answering a question and not telling a lengthy story.

Email

Email should focus on just one subject per message sent. Use an email subject line that communicates exactly what you need your recipient to know. Use relevant, eye-catching imagery to convey your point. Or, instead of an image, use a short, headline in a large font size to catch attention, along with a short bit of text to elaborate, and a call to action.
Designers have always known that less is more when it comes to their design’s content. Fewer words is refreshing. Be good to your designer and to your audience.

Six Steps to a Successful Membership Campaign

By Laura Ransone, Director of Membership & Events, Women in Government Relations, AMG Associate

Laura Ransone

Members are the heart of the association. Association professionals keep hearing that membership is declining or millennials don’t need associations. We need to get creative with our membership campaigns. Here are 6 steps to a successful membership campaign:

1. Set a goal

Make sure it is SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time based)! Think about your mission and strategic plan and set a number or percentage increase with a time frame.

2. Get buy in

Buy in from your stakeholders is essential to the success of the campaign. This includes the board of directors, membership committee, entire staff and of course the members. Everyone needs to feel connected to the goal. Clearly communicate the goal and how each group can contribute. Members can refer friends, the membership committee can hold recruitment events, the staff can set up interest calls and webinars. Everyone plays a role in reaching the goal.

3. Segment your marketing strategy

Is your membership divided into categories? It should be. Take a critical look at each sector, does one have more room for growth than another? Is one easier to grow than another? How can you directly market to each group in a way that speaks to them? Can you reach out to young professionals or students? Are their industry partners like vendors that are possible members?

4. Think creatively

Your members are your best resources, get testimonials! Promote through email, social media, and beyond! Hold a membership informational webinar with a discount code for attendees, stuff “join now” cards into non member badges so they can join onsite, and create member referral kickbacks. Take every opportunity to promote your brand and tell your membership stories.

5. Track your progress

Keep track of where you are with your goal and share your progress with your stakeholders. Build your momentum and excitement! Have a big event coming up? Create a tracking board and recruit members on the spot, show the numbers counting up to your goal.

6. Celebrate your accomplishment

Success! You’ve met your goal! Now what? Toot your own! Alert the world of your accomplishment post on social media, in industry publications, on your website. Keep your growth going by having nonmembers curious of why everyone is jumping to join your association.

Now, how will you retain those new members? Coming soon…

Structuring Your Government Affairs Program

By Tristan North, Vice President of Government Affairs, AMG

Tristan North

Many components comprise the structure of the government affairs program of an association. The structure needs to address the policy making and approval process, the coordination of the different activities between the components and the implementation of the policy objectives. A strong formal structure will help ensure the organization is optimizing its resources as well as following association best practices.

Policy Making and Approval Process

For most associations, the Board of Directors is the ultimate decision-making or approval body for the organization. The Board, however, has jurisdiction over all matters of the association. Thus, policy proposals are often best formulated within a committee or similar group which can spend more time and effort on a particular policy and composed of experts on the issue.

The number of committees depends on the needs of the association and whether the policies are legislative or regulatory. Many associations have just one government affairs committee that handles all of its public policy needs. Others have one dedicated to legislative issues and one for regulatory matters. Some associations have committees for each core issue area. The key is to not have a disproportionate number of committees compared to the size of the organization where the structure becomes too cumbersome to manage. Task forces are often a good alternative to addressing those issues that have a finite duration.

Once a committee signs off on a policy recommendation, it is then up to the Board to make it the position of the association.

Coordination of Activities

It is key to have one person who coordinates all the moving parts of the government affairs program to make sure you are maximizing your resources. Depending on the size of your organization, you may have one person who coordinates all of the activities or you may have one, or several people, who are responsible for particular committees, activities or issue areas.

In a small association, a director of government affairs or similar position can have the responsibility of staffing all of the public policy committees, covering all of the issue areas and undertaking the activities of lobbying, coordinating grasstops and grassroots outreach. Larger associations will tend to have a vice president of government affairs who oversees the policy areas and then several if not dozens of staff or consultants who handle specific issue areas and/or are focused on federal or state lobbying.

The key is to ensure that the policy recommendations being formulated by committees and staff are properly vetted and tracked and the right resources are being utilized.

Implementation of Policy Objectives

The final component is the successful implementation of the policies. While staff has the primary responsibility of moving the public policy objectives of an association forward, volunteer leaders of the association are a critical piece to success. The activities of your government affairs program should therefore incorporate members of your Board, committees and general membership into its structure.

Board members and public policy committee chairs should attend meetings on Capitol Hill and the administration as both leaders of the association, issue experts in their own right and in some cases as constituents. Volunteer leaders can also assist in reaching out to members of the association as their colleagues to assist with the grasstops and grassroots lobbying campaigns. Finally, involving volunteer leaders can be invaluable in helping the decision makers in the association see and understand firsthand any political challenges in trying to push policy objectives.

The structure of the government affairs program of an association can vary significantly from one organization to another. However, they should all share the same basic principles and components to help ensure compliance with best practices and achieve success.

Governance Strategies to Sustain your Association

By J. Bruce Wardle, CAE, AMG President/CEO

J. Bruce Wardle, CAE

Associations that fail to invest in governance strategies to build sustainability may risk losing momentum, influence, and possibly even members. Enlightened boards strategically navigate on two fronts: managing current issues or challenges and readying themselves and their associations for what could happen in the future.

To build a board culture that can successfully keep these two needs at the forefront simultaneously, adaptability, innovation, and resilience are essential. Only a board that is truly engaged, strategic, and effective can achieve these strategies. This article will explore some of the markers for engaged, strategic and effective boards.

Engaged Boards have staff who:

  • Make it easy for directors to invest time and effort in the work of their association
  • Provide a thorough orientation to new board members
  • Provide regular updates on the goals the board has set for itself and honestly report out to help board members make course corrections if their efforts aren’t effective.
  • Find opportunities for board members to get involved and promote them regularly in board meetings and communications while opening doors and providing introductions.

Engaged and highly effective board members often prefer to work behind the scenes or on a more individual basis. Effectively engaging board members takes an investment of staff time and a willingness to customize an engagement approach for each board member.

Strategic Boards have staff who help:

  • Focus board meetings on governance rather that management items
  • Determine priorities using the planning process and then align meeting agendas with the association’s goals and objectives
  • Anticipate potential concerns or problems before they become urgent
  • Address difficult issues and seek to identify opportunities for each member
  • Allocate time to what matters most to the performance and success of the organization

Research shows that strategic boards are twice as likely to invest substantial board meeting time to strategic considerations. Strategic boards operate under an organizational strategic plan—and the plan is likely to be one the board worked jointly with staff and consultants to develop.

Effective Boards have:

  • A strong strategic orientation and focus
  • A culture of self-assessment and accountability
  • Healthy attention to board member recruitment and development
  • Commitment to assessment and skills development and are likely to engage in formal or informal board self-assessment.
  • Effective board member recruitment processes. They were also more likely to recruit new board members broadly, by, for example, soliciting nominations from outside the board rather than depending on nominations.

Effective board leaders will work at maintaining clarity and consensus about what will constitute success—articulated in terms that describe the value or benefit that will accrue to mission, members, or both. The association’s activities and programs are guided by a continuously adjusted plan of work purposefully designed to transcend any one leader’s term of office. And strategies that sustain any nonprofit are energized by an envisioned future sufficiently compelling to earn the commitment of many generations of volunteer leaders.

Education Restoration – is it time to rebuild or restore your education program?

By Leah Reily, Managing Director, Society for Dermatology Physician Assistants/Dermatology PA Foundation / AMG Account Executive

Leah Reily

Providing education is a critical cornerstone for most, if not all, nonprofits. Building or revitalizing an existing education program can be a daunting task but vital for both large and small associations to revisit their education offerings to ensure their programs are keeping up with member needs and best practice.

The Society for Dermatology Physician Assistants (SDPA) offers specialized education to Physician Assistant (PAs) members who practice within the medical specialty of dermatology. Recently the SDPA began the challenging journey of hitting the refresh button on its certificate program*. Beginning in 2008, SDPA formed an in-depth certificate program in partnership with a medical college to provide dermatology specific education which would also feed into the national certification PAs must maintain. In 2015 the SDPA performed an in-depth review of its program. Ultimately, the decision was made to rebuild the program. To come to that decision, a few basic tenants were followed and certain core questions asked such as:

What are the goals of your program? It’s essential for you to determine the underlying currents of your program. Who does your program serve? What parts of your strategic plan does your program feed into? Most importantly, you should be able to clearly identify what main skills or knowledge your members should be walking away with. Don’t offer education just to offer education – it should be meaningful and purposeful.

Does your program meet member needs? Survey! Even if only surveying a select group, don’t assume you know what your members are thinking and feeling. You might be right, but often our preconceptions are inaccurate, or missing critical pieces to your associations “ecological puzzle.”

Knock it down and rebuild or touch-up the paint? Following a basic review of the first two items, you need to decide if you can simply implement strategic updates or if you need to redraft entirely. There are multiple, and often unique, reasons why your program might need to be rebuilt, so don’t let the decision to begin again dishearten you, your members, or those who contributed to the original program. Change can be positive and refreshing and shows that your organization is willing to keep pace. After following these steps the SDPA decided it was time to retire our program and start fresh. The decision was based on a number of factors most importantly being member feedback, but also including changing medical knowledge, the program’s age, reassessments of our partnership agreement and technological advancements.

OK – we’re rebuilding. Now what? Once we made the decision to overhaul the program we started planning a number of moving pieces.

Determine a budget. Whether you’re rebuilding or just restoring, setting your budget will help you tailor your process and resources within realistic financial boundaries. Be sure to tailor to your organizational needs, but overall you should include the full picture of your financial implications. There may be unique costs to consider, but all programs large or small will have the following overall budgetary considerations: (1) administrative costs such as off-site meetings, staff time, and supplies (2) technological systems (3) costs for professional help (if appropriate), and (4) costs for implementation and maintenance. At a later stage you will also need these costs to help you think critically about program price points. Your program should be sustainable at minimum, but don’t be afraid to make a profit if the market allows. Additional revenue can be used to further improve your education program(s) or give back to your community in other ways.

Do we need professional help? If it fits your budget, it’s worth considering professionals to guide you and your subject matter experts on the development of your new program. For my organization, hiring professional psychometricians was an important and much needed step. These specialists helped us to develop a comprehensive knowledge base known as a ‘Job Task Analysis’ for our specialty profession as PAs working in dermatology. Although we are still in the process of completing our knowledge base, we will be able to utilize it to build-out and assess knowledge gaps in current and future programs so our members gain the full range of necessary skills. It’s hard to know if a program meets your needs without knowing what those needs are.

Should we build our own program, or partner with someone else? There are merits to both ‘going it alone’ and partnering with an existing program or group, but be sure to consider the longevity and cost of a partnership or licensing agreement. Make sure that any partner program you are signing on to meets your education goals and needs. Take the time to confirm the program in question doesn’t present knowledge gaps which would be to the detriment of the skills you want your members to gain. Partnership and compromise go hand in hand, but don’t give away all your power or you might find yourself in a lurch and without a program on short notice.

Plan for your transition. Planning out the timeline for your transition both on the tail-end of your existing program and the start-up of the new program. There are many more elements to plan for, but be sure you have answers to main transitional questions before continuing. When will your current program end? Is there a gap between the old and new program – how long is it? Do you have branding, marketing, and advertising? When will messages and advertisements be sent out? In what form? Where?

It’s all about the members. Be sure to check the pulse of your membership throughout the process to make sure you’re taking their concerns into consideration. Your goal is to offer meaningful and exceptional education to members so be sure to keep them in mind. For instance, how will you accommodate members who have already completed your program vs. those who will complete the new one?

If your education programs have been on autopilot, now might be the right time to add a new coat of paint, replace the roof and rearrange the furniture. Upgrading or rebuilding can be an intense and personal process so don’t charge in without a plan, but don’t be afraid to start the process and implement change.

*For those of you who are confused about the difference between a certificate and a credentialing program, I would suggest checking out “Clarifying Misconceptions between Certificate and Credentialing Programs” from the Spring 2016 AMG Advisor.

Avoid Surprises and Make Better Decisions With Financial Forecasting

By Denise Turner, AMG VP of Finance and Operations

Denise Turner

In today’s complicated global economy, successful businesses require a lot of strategic planning and number-crunching. Companies make use of planning, budgeting and forecasting to map out the present and envision the future. All three of these functions also have an important place in managing a nonprofit and guiding the operations. Each has a distinct role.

Planning

Planning is the first step and virtually all of AMG managed nonprofits begin with a strategic plan which guides the organization in how the board wishes to accomplish the designated mission and purpose.

Budgeting

The next step is budgeting. The budget is the financial expression of the strategic plan. Budgets work to determine how things will run in the present and immediate future and tend to be closer to real actions and events.

Long-Term Forecasting

Once the board and staff know how much revenue will be generated and what the potential expense will be, long-term forecasting can begin to determine what might be accomplished over the life cycle of the strategic plan.

Cash Flow Forecast

AMG also encourages a cash flow forecast to estimate the amount of money expected to flow in (revenue) and out (expense) of the association, including projected income and expenses. A forecast is usually done over a 12-month period but could also cover a shorter period, such as a month. A cash flow forecast is based upon past and current numbers with assumptions for the future. The input of those who really know or staff the association is essential, as they know best what revenue or expense to anticipate and when to expect it.

Cash Flow Management

Cash flow management also helps leaders to plan for spending needs, avoid missing payments and thereby disrupting relationships with hospitality partners and vendors and preserving a good credit score. Using revenue forecasting, an enlightened board can project when cash will arrive, allowing leaders to make arrangements to keep enough cash and credit available to address all expense. It also helps you spot potential downtimes in the organization’s annual operation cycle.

Revenue and Expense Forecast

Projecting revenue and expense has a variety of benefits that help beyond knowing how much money to expect from operations. Forecasting revenue can help a board or finance committee discover the why, where, when and how of revenue, in the same way that anticipating expenses will assist in planning for unusual financial occurrences or surprises. Forecasting helps a Treasurer, chief staff officer or board make better strategic management decisions, carry out strategic operational decisions and will provide better services for members.
Forecasting is essential and may be one of the most important financial tools any nonprofit has because it reveals the future environment in which you will operate. That future environment can impact the budgeting process, overhead and cash flow, and will greatly impact an association’s ability to thrive and best serve its members. AMG supports clients in their financial forecasting as we are convinced that association leaders who forecast make better financial decisions.

Why a Strategic Plan – Highlights from a New Survey

By J. Bruce Wardle, CAE, President/CEO

J. Bruce Wardle, CAE

AMG places a high value on the benefits that nonprofits receive from strategic planning. We work diligently to ensure that every client at AMG has a living, vibrant strategic plan—or plan of work—and that the development of that plan is not a difficult process.

However, a new study suggests that strategic planning remains a struggle for most boards. And after resources are committed to planning, sometimes the plan implementation can become a hang-up.  It seems associations don’t seem to be getting much better as organizations at strategic thinking or strategic planning.

These are some of the main takeaways from the Concord Leadership Group’s “Nonprofit Sector Leadership Report,” a survey by the nonprofit consultancy of more than 1,000 CEOs, board members, and other leaders.  According to the study, 29 percent reported not having a strategic plan, and 19 percent of those that said they do have a plan said it’s not written down. (Which means that the annual budget becomes the de facto plan.)
But one thing the survey does a good job of highlighting—in a way that isn’t often done—is finding the correlations between strategic planning and other measures of success for an association. Those with a written strategic plan were:

  • More likely to collaborate with other related nonprofits (83 vs. 76 percent)
  • More likely to have boards “open to taking calculated risks” (65 vs. 51 percent)
  • More likely to evaluate its management/CEO annually (36 vs. 21 percent)
  • More likely to have a process for measuring leadership effectiveness (75 vs. 50 percent)

It seems quite clear then, how important it becomes for a board to commit the resources of time and money to produce a viable strategic plan. And yet some volunteer leaders still resist.  Partly, because planning and goal setting is hard.  Some board members are not necessarily used to being in roles that require them to think, act or work strategically. And some have trouble buying-in to the goal oriented process used most frequently in association planning, therefore ending up with a plan that mostly ratifies what the organization is already doing (or not doing).

The advice of the Concord Leadership Group survey is to boil down the strategic-planning process to four straightforward questions:

  • What are we doing, why are we doing it and who are we doing it for? This is effectively the organization’s mission statement, with a nod toward the changing environment in the profession or industry.
  • How are we going to get it done? This lays out the goals and objectives for the span of the strategic plan.
  • How will we fund it? This can mean dues, and non-dues revenue such as sponsorships, and other related income. But as the study points out, this can also identify business partners and collaborations that can support the nonprofit’s work.
  • Who will we tell about it? That is, how will the plan goals be communicated to the staff and volunteer leaders who will implement and expand it, and the members who will support it? (The last particularly meaningful for associations that do government-relations work.)

We believe that strategic planning is never going to be easy, if it’s done well. But clarifying the stakes of not doing it, talking through the benefits of the process, and making the process as painless as possible can help make this essential work happen.  The success of any association will be directly proportionate to the collective strength, willingness and leadership of its board, committees and staff to have a plan and to keep a focus on their plan and on desired outcomes.

 

Recognition Events and Awards Programs – The Importance of Celebrating Members, Partners and Programs

By Maria Bianchi, CAE, Executive Vice President, American Ambulance Association, AMG Executive

Maria Bianchi, CAE

Does your association currently produce an awards or recognition program? If so, when was the last time your award criteria were reviewed, added to or eliminated? Many times, Associations’ awards programs become perfunctory, stale and joyless.

Association leaders and members spend much of their time responding to challenges and visioning needs for the future. Oftentimes this means that the majority of focus is on crisis management, development of new initiatives, training and ultimately the financial health and well-being of the association. Shouldn’t we spend an equal amount of time celebrating success and recognizing and rewarding members and volunteer leaders?

I am not espousing a philosophy of the “everyone gets a trophy or certificate for showing up or participating,” rather I am suggesting the importance of acknowledging and celebrating the things, people and programs that makes being part of your association special.

There are a few things to consider whether you are re-vamping your current program or creating a new one from scratch.

  1. Do not let perfect be the enemy of the good – Our desire to create the perfect awards program can become an impediment to doing anything at all.
  2. Surprise recognition can be wonderful but people and companies appreciate knowing ahead of time. This allows them to invite others to see them receive their award and/or give them the opportunity to “toot their own horn” and receive some positive PR. Be sure to also humanize your award winners and tell their story, but not too long a story. Shorter stories a better in awards programs
  3. Review awards criteria on a regular basis. Things change, trends expire, and generational differences exist. Named awards are wonderful but over time, without a deliberative plan to educate members about the awards namesake; the value and honoring of the person diminishes, as does his/her relevance.
  4. Start small. Awards programs do not need elaborate production elements or expensive awards. Start with one or two award categories and perhaps a small token of appreciation. Later on after the awards program evolves, refocus on the power of production to ensure a look, feel and flow to your awards program.
  5. Engage others in the process. Volunteers are crunched for time and participating on an awards committee can be a wonderful way of engaging members who may not have the time to participate on a standing or permanent committee.
  6. Is attendance at the recognition event a barrier to the awardee? Provide a travel grant or if money is an issue, find a local member or community leader who can present the award locally. Ask for someone to videotape, or take a picture of, the presentation for posting to your website.
  7. Recognition programs are a great way to encourage corporate and individual giving. While not the sole reason to give an award, it can help with raising event sponsorship dollars and registration.
  8. Create an awards website and a separate award logo. This is a great inexpensive way to share the awards value, brand and outreach.
  9. Link your awards to the core values and mission of your association. This is another way to gain exposure for your organization, its vision and mission.
  10. Be realistic. Even the Academy Awards were originally a radio program only. Oftentimes the stars themselves did not show up to receive their award.

While there can be many challenges when creating a new awards and recognition program, or refreshing an old one, the benefit greatly outweighs the risk. It is imperative that association leaders spend time celebrating, recognizing and rewarding good work. The association professionals at AMG and the meeting professionals in the meetings and management division (MMG) have an abundance of experience related to awards programs and are happy to assist in the development of, or reinvestment in, a your recognition event.

 

Clarifying Misconceptions Between Certificate and Credentialing Programs

By Jim Magruder, MPA, Executive Director, Board of Registered Polysomnographic Technologists (BRPT) and Senior Account Executive, Association Management Group (AMG)

Jim Magruder, MPA

As Executive Director of a credentialing organization in the healthcare sector, I have witnessed a frustratingly persistent misconception among credential holders, their employers and the clients or customers they serve, regarding the distinction between a “certificate” and “credential” program.  Although the syntax is similar between these two terms, their meanings are distinctly different from one another in the world of credentialing.

Let’s focus first on the term credential: At the BRPT, we currently administer three psychometrically validated credential programs delivered through a third-party testing service. The item bank that supports them follows rigorous exam development protocols.  In addition, the BRPT’s RPSGT credential, “the gold standard for sleep technologists”, is accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA).  Apart from the work that goes into development and maintenance of an exam like the RPSGT, the NCCA accreditation requirements alone are quite rigorous.  I would encourage the reader to visit the Institute for Credentialing Excellence’s website for more information on NCCA accreditation standards.

In contrast, an assessment-based certificate program is often a valuable jumping-off point for an association that aspires to eventually launch a credential program. Typically, the content used to assess this level of knowledge is narrower in scope than a psychometrically validated exam. At the BRPT, we evolved an education program focused on clinical sleep educators (Clinical Sleep Educator (CSE) Certificate) from an initial certificate program to the development of a full credential program (Certification in Clinical Sleep Health (CCSH)). In this scenario, the original certificate program was used as an educational tool to gain knowledge in a specific area. The credential that followed was an outcropping of the success of the certificate program and an interest expressed by our stakeholders to pursue a full credential.

This is an example of choosing to initiate a credentialing program based on reaching out to stakeholders/members who have indicated a certain level of interest. I would caution that the true level of interest needs to be carefully assessed, as the cost associated with developing a credential can by sizeable. You must take into account all the costs associated with launching a new credential. This includes not just exam development and testing fees, but costs associated with adding new online and/or paper applications, transfer of test results from your exam provider, new copyrights and trademarks, and any collateral materials like candidate handbooks, practice exams, study guides, etc. that support the new credential. Therefore, it make take some time for the credentialing organization to recoup its initial development costs, much less begin to see any ROI on a new credential.  To put it more bluntly, once you turn on the “open for business” sign on your new credential, you’d better have customers waiting in line ready to buy it.

Why are the standards that support an accredited credential like the RPSGT set to such a high level?  In healthcare, where patient safety is concerned, we must feel confident the person making an assessment about our health and wellbeing has demonstrated a certain level of core competency.  A credential, involving strict eligibility requirements, has more career cachet than a certificate program. My experience is that certification is so valued in some fields that it is seen as essential, and some professionals are more interested in the credential than in becoming members of the professional association that governs it.

Similarly, we want to feel the same level of confidence with experts that mange other aspects of our lives, such as: financial advisors, certified public accounts, lawyers, electricians, auto mechanics, etc.  The organizations that oversee their professions must also ensure their credential holders have also passed minimum standards; may be required to recertify periodically through continuing education; and that if they break established standards of conduct, they can have their credentials suspended or revoked.

I stated at the outset of this article my frustration with misconceptions about “credential” vs. “certificate.”  The most egregious error I see on a regular basis is when someone carries a certificate along with their other credentials on their professional profile. To someone with expertise in their credentialing niche, the error is easier to spot.  However, to a layperson, it’s an alphabet soup and they will assume the certificate acronyms comingled with other, real credentials are all based on equivalent standards. I honestly believe most “certificate” holders are unaware of their own professional gaff.

When we developed the Clinical Sleep Educator (CSE) certificate program, it was based on nomenclature widely understood by people in the profession and the term was well established.  In contrast, the BRPT chose to differentiate the new credential by assigning it the name Certification in Clinical Sleep Health (CCSH).  However, the term CSE had already taken a foothold in sleep medicine and certificate holders mistakenly added the CSE along with their RPSGT and/or other healthcare credentials. This confusion spilled over to employers as well. I recall cringing when I saw several job postings that included the phrase “prefer someone with CSE or CCSH credential.”  As you can imagine, the BRPT has been trying to educate our credential holders about the very important distinctions between the two!