Certification vs. Certificate Programs: Which Is Right for Your Association?

The association world is full of abbreviations. We have shorthand for association technology: LMS, AMS, CMS, FMS, and so on. And, then there’s the designations for certification and certificate programs: CMP, CAE, IOM, PMP, etc. Maybe we should pause right here and explain the difference between designations and certification vs. certificate programs.

If your association has one of these credential programs, you most likely understand the difference. But if you’re thinking about adding a credentialing program to your professional development portfolio, you need to understand what each of them is all about and which one might be right for your organization.

Certification vs. certificate programs

Both certification and certificate programs are a type of credentialing for individuals. 


Certification validates and recognizes an individual’s existing experience, competency, knowledge, and skills. The certification requirements usually include experience and education components. For example, the eligibility requirements for the Certified Association Executive (CAE) include:

•    Experience: three years of experience as a CEO at a qualifying organization, or five years of experience working at the staff level at a qualifying organization.
•    Education: a bachelor's degree or higher, or in lieu of a degree, eight additional years of professional work experience.
•    Continuing education: 100 hours of broad-based qualifying professional development within the last five years preceding the application submission.

Certification programs are not linked to any specific learning program—a key distinguisher from certificate programs. Instead, certification programs assess the individual’s previously acquired knowledge and skills. The assessment of certification candidates is broad in scope.  

Certification usually requires individuals to recertify if they wish to maintain their designation. The certification renewal requirement ensures that designation holders continue to pursue professional development and stay current in their field. 

certification vs. certificate programs

Certificate program

A certificate program is linked to a specific learning program or series of learning programs. You may also hear certificate programs called “Assessment-Based Certificate” or “ABC” programs. 

Unlike certification, a certificate program provides instruction and/or training to acquire specific competencies, knowledge, and/or skills. The student is assessed on their mastery of the intended learning outcomes of those programs, and is awarded a certificate to recognize that mastery. Certificates are not awarded merely for attendance. 

Digital badges may also be awarded as an additional visual representation of the student’s accomplishment. Learners are increasingly interested in obtaining digital badges because they are public, sharable proof of accomplishment, unlike paper certificates that remain unseen in file cabinets and on office walls.


Many people believe designations can only be awarded by certification programs, like the CAE or CMP, but that’s not true. Certificate programs can also award designations. You might be familiar with the IOM designation from the Institute for Organization Management, the professional development program of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. 

The IOM designation is awarded to people who attend the four-year Institute program, which is comprised of four one-week sessions. The graduates of this certificate program receive the IOM Graduate Recognition, signifying 96 hours of course instruction in nonprofit management. The IOM doesn’t have any upkeep requirements to maintain the designation, unlike most certification programs.

Why offer certification and/or certificate programs?

ASAE Foundation researchers investigated the benefits of credential programs both to the associations that award them and to the professionals who hold them. Here’s what they learned. 

Credentialing programs:

•    Increase member loyalty to the association.
•    Increase the association’s visibility.
•    Increase the association’s legitimacy as the voice of its members.
•    Reinforce the association’s value.
•    Provide a service valued by both employers and members.

Associations reported that credentialed members were more likely to:

•    Be leaders in their field and maintain a competitive advantage.
•    Comply with standardized practices.
•    Renew their membership. 
•    Hold a leadership position within the association.
•    Participate in association activities.

Managers of credentialing programs identified the following benefits of credentialing for designation holders:

•    Recognition
•    Elevated status
•    Improved reputation
•    Sense of achievement

Knowing many designation holders, I’d add a few more to that list:

•    Deeper, wider knowledge of profession and industry
•    Bigger-picture, strategic perspective
•    Access to new relationships: fellow study group members, candidates, designation holders, and employers
•    Competitive edge

By offering credentialing programs, your association is training and recognizing the leaders of your profession or industry. You’re helping to bridge skills gaps in your industry’s workforce. And, you’re building your association’s reputation as the place to come for professional development and advancement.

certification vs. certificate programs

Which is right for your association: a certification or certificate program? 

You want to invest your association’s time and money for the right reasons, not because “everyone else is doing it.” Before you commit resources, start with the basics. 

Why do you want to build a certification or certificate program? What do you hope to accomplish? Is this the only way to accomplish that goal?

Does this reason align with your organization’s strategic goals?

Is there a need for this program in your industry or profession? Is a certificate program needed to address a critical knowledge or skills gap? Or, is a certification program needed to identify and recognize professionals who have the competencies required in your profession or industry?

As with any new initiative, you must do market research to make sure there is demand from your target audience. Learn about any competition and/or partnership opportunities. It may not be prudent to start your own program if a quality one already exists, but perhaps you can collaborate.

Is there support for a program? Will employers get behind it? Will they value it when hiring and promoting? Will they support their employees pursuing it? 

Do you (or will you) have the resources? You will need additional funds and staff hours to implement, manage, and market any new program.

Credentialing consultant Mickie Rops has written many articles about certification and certificate programs, including one on deciding if certification is right for your organization. She identifies the potential opportunities and obstacles of a certification program, and recommends conducting a feasibility analysis before making any decisions.

certification vs. certificate programs

Managing your credentialing programs

If the results of your research and analysis point in a positive direction, you’ll want to start thinking about how to effectively manage your association’s new credentialing programs. Thankfully, technology, such as our TopClass learning management system (LMS), was designed for this purpose.

Look for an LMS that makes it easy for professionals to track their credit history—both credits they’ve earned from your programs and credits earned from external sources. Give learners the option to print their own certificates or publicize their accomplishments by displaying or sharing digital badges

Seek out platforms that automate as much as possible so you can save staff time too. For example, look at systems that deliver automatic email notifications to certification candidates about their pending competency and re-certification requirements.

Your LMS should allow you to offer certification and certificate paths that include mandatory and elective courses, required professional experience, exams, and external training. The LMS should help you define and manage your programs and their associated maintenance requirements—from receiving initial applications and tracking requirements to delivering assessments and exams.

Although the decision to offer a certification or certificate program is not one to take lightly, keep in mind the transformative impact these credentials can have on your members’ lives. If it’s the right thing to do for your association, embrace the challenge and move forward.

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