Surviving – and Thriving in – the Accreditation Process

Surviving – and Thriving in – the Accreditation Process

When The Duke Endowment asked Margie Christopher, executive director of Children’s Homes of Cleveland County, if her agency could pursue accreditation, she was hesitant.

“We had only 13 staff, and none of us had ever worked at an accredited agency, so I wasn’t so sure we could do it,” she says. “But we agreed to try.”

Their small staff size and $500,000 annual budget made Children’s Homes of Cleveland County one of the smallest agencies in the country to go through the accreditation process. Today, after successfully achieving and maintaining accreditation from the Council on Accreditation, Christopher and her staff have many lessons to share.

Margie Christopher, executive director of Children's Homes of Cleveland County, led the accreditation effort to help her agency meet high standards and achieve best practices to better serve children.

Overcoming Challenges

“The Duke Endowment gave us a grant to support a consultant, Rochelle Haimes, who helped us dive in,” says Christopher. “She helped us get over the initial hesitancy and clarify what we needed to do. For us, having that outside, objective guidance was essential.”

One of the first hurdles was building infrastructure by finding a way to add at least one master’s-level staff person to her team, so during the 18-month-long accreditation process, Christopher sent her staff social worker to graduate school for a degree in agency administration. That staff person, Chuck Barbee, now serves as assistant director of the agency, and his former slot was filled by another social worker with a master’s degree.

“Simply making time to go through the accreditation process is another big challenge,” Christopher explains. “Executive directors in small agencies wear many hats and often have commitments to other community organizations and to their families. I rearranged my life in order to coordinate our accreditation process.”

She also learned to be resourceful in seeking expertise to help with specialized parts of the process, such as developing policies for finance, insurance and risk management. “Although I’d dealt with all these areas, I didn’t have the expertise to write policy, so we looked outside of the agency for friends who could help,” says Christopher. She solicited accountants, attorneys and even a fellow church member who could translate documents into Spanish.

Christopher emphasizes the importance of engaging board and staff in the accreditation process. “It’s imperative that all staff and board members understand why accreditation itself is important, and how their particular functions play an important role in both developing policies and gathering the data to show we’ve adhered to those policies,” she says.

The Process Pays Off

The benefits of pursuing accreditation are many, according to Christopher, who now makes presentations about her experience at peer gatherings.

“After the first accreditation, it was clear that we now had detailed documentation about how the agency should be run. Much of that information had been in my head, but the process forced me to put policy and practice on paper. Now, if something happens to me, the agency can still run smoothly. And, as we go through re-accreditation every four years, more than half of our staff understand and could lead that process.”

Christopher plans to maintain the agency’s accreditation, and finished the first re-accreditation review in 2008.

“It’s much easier the second time around,” she says, laughing. “Because we’re accredited, our funders, referral sources and the community look at us differently, and it definitely strengthens our case when we look for support."

But most importantly, Christopher says, being accredited gives a great sense of satisfaction.

“We know we’re meeting high standards and providing the best practice we can. We were first introduced to the concept of best practice in the Carolina’s Project in the mid-1990s by our consultant Dr. Rick Small. We were challenged to become accredited in 2001 and were successful. There were many ‘cheerleaders’ along the way as we reached each milestone—which is the key to success.”

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