Promoting Excellence and Trust in the Nonprofit Sector
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Frequently Asked Questions

The Standards for Excellence Institute is:
- an initiative dedicated to promoting the highest standards of ethics and accountability in nonprofit governance, management, and operations.
- an initiative that provides individual nonprofits with an approach to use to achieve the highest standards in governance and management within their organization.
- a nation-wide membership organization.
- an operating division of Maryland Nonprofits that serves nonprofits throughout the nation.

The Standards for Excellence program is:
- a structured approach for nonprofits to use to build capacity, accountability, and sustainability in their organizations
- a list of nonprofit best practices, divided into these categories:
Mission, Strategy, and Evaluation
Leadership: Board, Staff, and Volunteers
Legal Compliance and Ethics
Finance and Operations
Resource Development
Public Awareness, Engagement, and Advocacy

These best practices are documented in a code of conduct for nonprofits called the Standards for Excellence: An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector (the Standards for Excellence code).

The Standards for Excellence code, also known as the Standards for Excellence: An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector, is a set of best practices that provides a structured approach to building capacity, accountability, and sustainability in a nonprofit organization.

The Standards for Excellence code, introduced originally in 1998, was developed by the Standards for Excellence Institute. The Institute continuously reviews and makes updates to the code, including recently incorporating justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion concepts.

Nonprofits across the United States use the Standards for Excellence program to build capacity, accountability, and sustainability in their organizations.

Nonprofits work to “meet the standards” by evaluating their organization against each one of the best practices listed in the Standards for Excellence code. They can do a self-assessment to determine if their nonprofit has areas where it is lacking. Standards for Excellence educational resource packets are an extensive library of detailed, comprehensive resources that help nonprofits implement each standard. Packets were prepared by conducting an exhaustive review of the literature on each topic, they contain best practice information, in an easy-to-use format, including practical documents like model procedures and sample policies.

Nonprofits can prove publicly their commitment to the Standards by becoming accredited (earn the “Seal of Excellence”) or recognized (as having achieved the “Standards basics” or “Standards basics enhanced”).

Being accredited by the Standards for Excellence Institute demonstrates that a nonprofit has met the rigorous requirements that are included in the standards. Being an accredited nonprofit sets the organization apart as a top performer in the nonprofit field and lets all its stakeholders (funders, community members, board, staff, volunteers) know that they can have confidence in the quality of its programs, its accountability and openness, and its commitment to best practices.

The three levels of recognition include:
- Standards Basics recognition (requires strong policies in place for good governance and legal compliance, and calls for a well-defined mission with impactful programs)

- Standards Basics Enhanced recognition (requires all the Basics requirements, plus the nonprofit must be inclusive of the community served, must hold strategic and effective board meetings, and must have programs that are attentive to strategic issues and trends in the community)

- Accreditation (Seal of Excellence) (requires all the Basics and Basics Enhanced requirements, plus the nonprofit must create long-range strategic and sustainability plans, build strong board performance, and outline steps to strengthen justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion. Accreditation requires meeting all the requirements in the Standards for Excellence code.)

Nonprofits of all sizes and service areas can find a level that fits their needs.

Accreditation and recognition require submitting a detailed application that will receive a peer review and also be evaluated by Standards of Excellence professionals with expertise in nonprofit management and accountability. There is an application fee and a licensing fee, which are based on a variety of factors including size of the nonprofit’s budget.

More information: Application Process Overview

A good first step towards accreditation: the free online self-assessment

Going through the process has many benefits for the nonprofit.
The nonprofit will:
- Gain a deeper understanding of its effectiveness,
- Improve its decision-making,
- Maximize its board performance,
- Raise more money,
- Increase equity and inclusion,
- Earn public trust,
- Become a sustainable organization, and
- Minimize risks.

Also, working to achieve accreditation or recognition:
- sets the nonprofit apart as one that goes above and beyond minimal legal requirements,
- demonstrates that the organization is committing the needed resources to leadership, capacity, and infrastructure,
- lets donors and community members know that organizational assets are being stewarded wisely.

Note that the accreditation or recognition designation will automatically be noted in the nonprofit’s GuideStar profile.