One of the most frequently asked questions we get from organizations, is what the differences are between these three entities: accrediting bodies, licensing authorities, and certification organizations. Commonly there is overlap, but sometimes there are distinct differences. Before we explore those differences, there are a few points to highlight:

Now let’s walk through the definitions and examples of each category, and then take a look at some examples of how they can overlap.  There’s an infographic at the end of the post that gives an overview of this discussion. 


If an organization is accredited this means they conducted a thorough self-assessment and compared themselves to recognized standards of best practice. Accreditation means that the organization, agency, or program was able to demonstrate evidence of implementation to all of the relevant standards. It is a rigorous process conducted by a third party organization.

The process is voluntary; however regulating bodies often require accreditation in order to be licensed or certified. The accreditation process typically repeats every 2-4 years, depending on the accrediting body. Normally, individuals or private practices are not able to become accredited; however, some exceptions may exist.


The Council on Accreditation (COA) develops standards and guidelines for the accreditation of services delivered by behavioral health and social service agencies. The accreditation process is designed to assist agencies in implementing organizational structures (i.e. financial management), and processes of care (i.e. case-management) that will help them achieve better results in all areas, and ultimately improve the well-being of their clients. Organizations use their accredited status to demonstrate accountability to clients, funders and donors.

Accreditors of human and social services

The most common accreditors of human and social services are as follows:

Council on Accreditation (COA)
Joint Commission

Here’s a comparison between the above accrediting bodies.


Individuals are often licensed by their respective state to practice counseling, social work, or nursing. Organizations may need to be licensed in order to provide a specific service such as services for substance use disorders or residential treatment. Practitioners and programs are required to be licensed or face penalties, including suspension or closing of agency.


Under New York State law, no organization may operate an adult group home without a license.

In most states, including New York, individual social workers must have a clinical license in order to provide psychotherapy without supervision.


Certifications at the organizational level can definitely vary, including the terminology. Some structured evidence-based models require certification. In these cases, the certification can be called “authorized provider” or “approved site.”


We also often see certifications for individuals. Many schools of social work have certificate programs. For example, Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana offers a certificate in Family Practice. This is an opportunity for students to get a specialized education and accrue experience in this specialized area which they can include on their resumes. 

Understanding the correlation between accreditation, licensing and certification

More and more, regulating bodies are requiring that organizations become accredited or certified in order to be a licensed provider in their respective state.


Effective January 1, 2017 in California foster care providers must be accredited or in the process of being accredited to qualify as a licensed provider. We call this a recognition, the state is recognizing the value of accreditation and using it to identify credible and accountable organizations who have implemented best practices. 

In Nebraska, organizations must be certified in Functional Family Therapy (FFT LLC) to be a licensed provider. In this example, the state is relying on a certification to ensure that specific models are implemented and relying on FFT LLC to track the fidelity of the program model.

Final takeaways

We hope you now have a better understanding of these terms, or at least with recognizing when you need to ask more questions to ensure that your organization remains in good standing with all entities that have a stake.

Here’s an infographic summarizing what we went over in this post, feel free to share it! 

Accreditation, Licensing, & Certification: What's the difference? Graphic