Note: This post was originally published in 2017. Now that it’s 2020, we decided to give it an update. The core information remains the same.

Social service agencies across the world have voluntarily risen to the challenge of achieving accreditation. Whether their original goal was to focus on administrative functions or service delivery quality, the accreditation process (particularly with a whole-organization accreditation approach) provides these agencies with a blueprint to refine practices simultaneously across every area of the organization. The performance of these agencies has caught the eye of oversight entities and consumers alike, prompting accreditation to be used has a regulatory tool through mandates.  

The word ‘mandate’, particularly in a government context, is notorious for creating concern across service providing agencies, often because of the cost associated with those requirements. COA believes all mandates function best when paired with the funding required to meet  those mandates. We encourage all regulatory entities to consider the financial impact of any imposed mandate, as it can make or break the success of these initiatives.  

Though the financial concerns of these agencies are absolutely valid, we can’t ignore the positives that can come with an accreditation requirement. Through accreditation, agencies are given a path to meet a base-level of quality across administrative and service delivery functions. Accreditation sets clear service expectations for service recipients and the taxpayers that fund these programs alike. It also fosters  a culture of continuous improvement that can ensure the sustainability of an agency’s services. We cannot ignore the importance of these tenets in growing and maintaining a strong social service system that meets the needs of our communities.  

To hopefully make this all a little easier on your organization, we’ve creating this guide to support your agency in navigating a mandate. Our goal is to help you gather important details, understand what is required, determine milestones, and know how to compare and contrast accreditors. 

Note: Our best advice is don’t delay! Expect that it will take up to six months to determine an accreditor and then 12-18 months to pursue and achieve accreditation. 

Questions for the entity that mandated your accreditation

What accrediting bodies are accepted?

Usually a mandate will include a list of accepted accreditors.  If this isn’t included, reach out to the payer to find out what accreditors are accepted. If your preferred accrediting body isn’t recognized, we encourage you to reach out to that accrediting body and let them know. We can only speak for COA, but we are always willing to work with you and regulating entities to have COA accreditation be accepted under a mandate. 

What service(s) is/are mandated?

Does the mandate apply to one service? Many services? The entire organization?  Is there a document that crosswalks which services are mandated and what standards need to be applied by the accreditors? COA Accreditation Coordinators often know which service standard assignments are required for a mandate, but we always think it’s best for you yourself reach out to your regulatory entity to determine what is exactly required for your agency and the services you are providing.  

What is due and when?

Mandates often come with specific timelines and may even have multiple milestone requirements. In these instances, regulating entities will designate a deadline for achievement of accreditation. To ensure organizations are on track to meet a deadline, regulating entities will designate milestone deadlines on the way to an accreditation award – a date by which organizations must engage with an accreditor, a date by which organizations must have their Site Visit, and then a date by which an award must be received. 

What type of accreditation award is needed?

It’s important to clarify what type of accreditation award is due and when.  Some accreditors offer provisional or temporary accreditation. Accreditors and regulatory entities will work with your organization to determine the type of accreditation award that is required under your mandate. 

Evaluating accreditors — features to consider 

Once you know which of your programs needs to be accredited, by when, and by whom, reach out to all the approved accreditors and get an understanding the features of each. Regulatory entities and some membership groups will often facilitate panels with all recognized accreditors to help providers select the accreditor that is best for their agency. Here are some questions you’ll want to ask:   

How much does your accreditation process cost?  

Ask about application fees, accreditation fees, Site Visit fees (scheduled and unscheduled), and maintenance fees.  Is there a fee to purchase the standards?  If so, how many copies will you need and how often will updates be published in the future?  Make sure to ask about required fees and optional fees.  For example, trainings might be required and have associated fees.  

What is awarded and how long is it valid?

Each accrediting body will have a different length of accreditation award. This is referred to as an ‘accreditation cycle’, which will let you know how long your award is valid and how often you can expect to go through the accreditation process. Some mandates require a specific award length, in these cases the approved accreditors have worked with your oversight entity to meet this regulatory requirement. It’s important to keep all of this in mind when evaluating cost – how many accreditation cycles will your organization undergo over time (including provisional cycles)? 

What is included in the accreditation review?

Will the accreditor require all programs to pursue accreditation, or can you isolate individual programs?  Will the administration and management areas of the organization be reviewed?  Will every site be visited in the review (important to keep in mind when considering cost!)? Does the approach of the accreditor fit your organizational culture?  Does the accreditation cover all of the desired service areas (current and future growth plans)?  

We encourage all agencies to look toward future mandates as well. We have often seen additional services mandated, and agencies that utilized an accreditor with a whole-organization approach are most prepared for any mandate that comes their way. 

How long does it take?

Most accreditation processes take 12-18 months from deciding to pursue to decision. However, the right time to sign up might vary with each accreditor.  For example, some accreditors want to hear from you when you’re ready for your Site Visit within 4-6 months. Other accreditors want you to apply before your self-assessment period so that they can work alongside your organization in preparation for the Site Visit. 

How is my organization supported throughout the process?  

Are you assigned a point person to work with from the accrediting body? Does the accreditor offer trainings? How and when can you ask questions?  Does the accreditor provide templates and other tools to support you? Is there an online management system to assist with managing the process? Though every accreditor provides different tools to support agencies in meeting their mandate, it’s important to assess how much guidance and assistance will help your agency thrive in this process. 

What is required to maintain our accreditation status?

Once accredited, what is your responsibility for self-reporting changes at your organization? What is the process when your organization adds a new program or a new site? Are there annual reporting requirements and fees? What is your responsibility when it comes to implementation when standards change? 

Seek recommendations 

Ask peer organizations

Contact a few peer agencies that are already accredited. Think about the characteristics you should consider when identifying a peer – is it population they serve? Their size?  Location? Mission? Ask your peers about their satisfaction with the accreditation process, how they managed the work, and when appropriate, if they’d be willing to be a resource while you pursue accreditation.  

Ask internally – staff, board members, and volunteers

Start a discussion about their accreditation experiences and what they liked or disliked about the process. This is also an opportunity to gauge interest to see who would be willing to be part of the accreditation team or even lead the accreditation effort within your organization.

Ask your membership associations

If you belong to an association, ask if they support accreditation. Some associations have relationships with accreditors which might make your organization eligible for a discount when pursuing the process. Some offer technical assistance, and many are willing to facilitate dialogue around accreditation. 

Hopefully, this information will assist your organization with mapping out your journey towards seeking accreditation. 

Here are some related resources we have available.

Please feel free to share other resources you’ve found helpful while navigating this topic in the comments below!

Active military and Veterans play an integral role in our everyday lives. Although we can’t always witness them in action or grasp the full breadth of their influence, we have confidence in their bravery and the safety they provide to our society on a daily basis. While we have this understanding, we also recognize that Veterans in this country often need support when they return home. Not only because of the inherent trauma of combat, but also because of the challenging economic situations that they often find themselves and their families in. We must continue to strive to do better by our Veterans. An example of progress in this area is the Supportive Services for Veteran Families (SSVF) program. This program addresses the varying needs of an individual Veteran and their family, by providing assistance with housing, transportation, child care, and the financial barriers that they may face.

SSVF was established in 2011 as a Rapid Rehousing and Homeless Prevention program to support homeless Veterans and their families in finding permanent housing and prevent homelessness for those at imminent risk due to the housing crisis at the time. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is making $326 million in grants available to providers through a competitive application process, in order to assist them with providing SSVF services. These services assist Veteran families with outreach, case management, and assistance accessing and coordinating other services that promote housing stability and community integration. The program has had several successes since its inception.

In 2015, Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe announced that Virginia would be the first state in the nation to functionally eliminate Veteran homelessness. The philosophy underlying the state’s initiative is housing first — a policy that holds that providing homeless people with safe, supportive housing is a precondition for attending to the issues that caused them to slip through the cracks in the first place. Supportive services in permanent housing typically keep residents linked to social workers and include health services — many single homeless adults have some kind of serious physical, mental or substance abuse-related problem — and job readiness programs .

Virginia is not the only state that has seen successes with this population. SSVF, Phoenix, Arizona was the first community in the country to end homelessness among veterans with lengthy histories of homelessness. The tenet of the program as described by one veteran, “I’m coming up on nine months sober, and a big part of it is because I have a roof over my head.” The program allows participants to prioritize their recovery because they are no longer consumed with the fundamental human need of finding shelter.

Many capacities/elements are considered when applying to be a SSVF provider, one of which is a provider’s accreditation status. The Council on Accreditation is recognized by the VA as an approved accreditor of SSVF services. SSVF providers that are COA accredited are eligible to receive a three-year funding award from the VA, while non-accredited providers are limited to one-year funding awards. Recognition of specific accreditors is often used as a tool for oversight entities, in this case the VA, uses accreditation to meet/or exceed oversight requirements. The VA also allows SSVF providers to use their funding to pay for accreditation. This incentivizes providers to become accredited and allows the VA to verify that these providers have gone through a rigorous third party review by an accreditor. Essentially the VA uses accreditation as a tool to indicate a quality provider with quality services, services that are best equipped to support U.S Veterans and their families.

Jill Albanese, Supervisory Regional Coordinator at the VA, oversees providers of the SSVF program and has been with the department since the creation of the program. Jill graciously took time to explain how the VA’s recognition of COA accreditation played a role in them determining funding for these grantees. Check out our discussion below.

COA: What was the genesis of recognizing an accreditor for this funding?

JA: When SSVF was being created we wanted to find a way to monitor and oversee the program consistently within our limited resources. We looked into how other non-profit oversight entities were doing this work and began learning more about the accreditation process.

COA: Why is accreditation status a component of the SSVF grant?

JA: We wanted agencies to become accredited, however we did not want to mandate it and limit services in a community if a provider does not yet have an accreditation status. To further incentivize accreditation we allow providers to use SSVF funds to pay for accreditation and allow accredited organizations to be eligible for three-year funding awards.

COA: Were those incentives effective?

JA: Yes, I would estimate that about half of all SSVF providers are accredited.

COA: How has recognizing COA accreditation impacted the VA’s oversight of the SSVF program?

JA: We’ve seen increased consistency amongst accredited SSVF providers. In addition, we have consistent oversight practices for accredited organizations that allows us to reduce the duplicative work that we do to monitor the programs. We use an Accreditation Tool that shows our auditors which review steps would have been covered for them to achieve accreditation. We can spend less time monitoring those sections already reviewed under the accreditation process and more time focusing on offering technical assistance to our providers. It saves time for auditors and providers.

COA: Can you tell us about the roll out of the accreditation provision?

JA: Initially, we gave priority funding to applicants that were already accredited at the time. Then we worked with each accreditor recognized to determine specific service sections that we felt most appropriately fit the SSVF program. The accreditors then crosswalked their standards with our regulations and we were able to achieve further consistency between provider agencies.

COA: What have you heard from providers related to the accreditation process?

JA: I recently spoke with a provider about this, they described the process as totally worth it. In fact, this particular provider is excited to now be mentoring another agency through the accreditation process. I’ve also heard positive comments on the standards themselves. The process is rigorous, particularly before the Site Visit, but overall providers seem to appreciate the organizational change it creates.

COA: How do you think the accreditation process has impacted SSVF providers?

JA: Anecdotally, there seems to be an increased sense of organization about them. Particularly in day-to-day work we’ve seen providers transform their processes and procedures, which has an improved impact on the services delivered. It has increased the expectation of quality amongst SSVF providers, which has led to increased quality amongst the providers applying for SSVF funds.

COA: As the oversight entity, have there been any challenges to having an accreditation component for the grant?

JA: SSVF is a dynamic program that is constantly changing. Our mission is always the same, but the method changes, in some instances these changes can be rapid. It helps that the accreditors are ready and willing to make changes when that happens.

COA: Are there any components of accreditation that you find particularly valuable as an oversight entity?

JA: The individual governance standards, and policies and procedures are extremely helpful. It provides agencies guidance and structure. If a provider loses a staff member having these components of accreditation in place help them stabilize, which is good for Veterans.

COA: What impact do you feel the accreditation process has on the individuals served by SSVF programs?

JA: Ultimately, the individual Veteran has been able to expect a greater emphasis on consistent services. Anecdotally, the providers seem to run smoother operations.

COA: Has the role of an accreditor created any efficiencies for the VA as an oversight entity?

JA: Program review has become more efficient. Grantees are more organized for the process, which allows us to save time on things that usually require a lot of back and forth. It saves a lot of time day-to-day.

COA: Is there anything else you want to share that we haven’t covered in these questions?

JA: It’s amazing to see the differences from one year to the next with these providers. They’re eager to share their progress and the successes their clients have achieved.

Thank you!

We would like to take a moment to thank Jill for her time and insights, but mostly for the work she does every day to support Veterans in this country. COA looks forward to our continued collaborative partnership with the VA.