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Inevitably, someone asks, “How do you become a Certified Professional Organizer?” As a nine-year veteran of the profession, a member of the National Association of Professional Organizers and a CPO® myself, I hear this question often. Actually, I usually hear, “OK, I get that you’re certifiable, but how do you get to be certified?”

You can’t just hang out a shingle and call yourself a Certified Professional Organizer any more than you can decide to call yourself a Certified Financial Planner. There are professional experience and educational requirements, exams and ethical obligations, all set up to create standardization of the body of knowledge in a field that is complex and far reaching.

The certification program overseen by the Board of Certified Professional Organizers (BCPO) was more than a decade in the making to ensure that the educational requirements were stringent and yet applicable to all in a field that ranges from residential generalists to those who specialize in special-needs clients (e.g., those with ADD/ADHD or traumatic brain injuries), from financial organizing experts to unfailingly kind, patient hoarding specialists.

Basic Requirements

First, what are the requirements for becoming a professional organizer? As of the writing of this post, candidates must fulfill three basic prerequisites even before sitting for the certification exam. Each candidate must:

  • Have a minimum of a high school diploma or the equivalent, such as a GED.
  • Must sign an agreement (as part of the application process) to adhere to the BCPO’s Code of Ethics for Certified Professional Organizers.
  • Be ready to provide documentation to prove a total of 1,500 hours of paid work experience in three years prior to sitting for the certification exam. As the BCPO website states, the paid work experience:

… may include but is not limited to on-site organizing, coaching, consulting, training, virtual organizing, interactive workshops and speaking engagements, which, through client collaboration, transfers, teaches or demonstrates organizing skills.

Of those 1500 hours, up to 250 can include substitution hours for various endeavors, including up to 100 hours for college and advanced degrees, as well as credit hours for other types of continuing education related to professional organizing. Candidates can also substitute hours for paid speaking engagements, publishing books, authoring articles, and a variety of other endeavors considered valuable as preparation for becoming certified. For specific details regarding the intricacies of which substitute hours are allowed, the BCPO offers a nifty breakdown.

Although candidates don’t have to submit proof of their hours prior to sitting for the exam, there is a post-exam audit process to maintain the integrity of the CPO® credential. A randomly selected percentage of test-takers will be audited, requiring them to submit verification of their regular and substitute hours, so most professional organizers start — what else? — organizing proof of qualifications before ever sitting for the exam. That’s just how we roll.

The Big Test

Once a candidate has submitted all the required proof, he or she is ready to sit for the computer-based, multiple-choice exam, given in one of three annual testing windows. The standard testing fee is $550; however, members of the National Association of Professional Organizers (NAPO), the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD), Professional Organizers in Canada (POC), the Australasian Association of Professional Organizers (AAPO) and the Nederlandse Beroepsevereniging van Professional Organizers (NBPO) pay a reduced fee of $375.

The test, itself, covers six weighted areas of content with which a professional organizer seeking certification should be familiar. One quarter of the material covers the basic foundations of professional organizing. Preliminary assessments, action plan development and implementation and project/plan management each account for 20% of the exam, while material related to post-implementation evaluation, follow-up and maintenance accounts for 10%. Legal and ethical considerations constitute the final five percent of the test material.

This is definitely not Underwater Basketweaving 101.

For those interested in preparing for the exam, the BCPO has an exceedingly detailed step-by-step delineation of every possible sub-topic the exam may cover, as well as a suggested reading list to help aspirants prepare.

Re-certification

Becoming certified is just the beginning. Each CPO®’s term of certification is only three years, during which time she or he will continue learning, studying and generally geeking out on all the exciting things there are to learn about the profession of organizing. At the end of the three years, each CPO® may apply for renewal of certification.

To renew, one must again submit an application promising to adhere to the Code of Ethics, pay an annual maintenance fee, and either submit documentation of 45 hours of continuing professional education earned during the prior three years or retake the certification exam. Yes, it’s like having to show up for every 8 a.m. class in college, or they’ll make you take the S.A.T.s again!

What About CPO-CDs?

The CPO® designation is governed by the BCPO and is intended as a qualification which any professional organizer — generalist or specialist — might pursue. However, for professional organizers who are not only members of NAPO (or international sister organizations), but also the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD) (formerly the National Study Group on Chronic Disorganization (NSGCD)), there is an opportunity to reach a higher level in a more narrowly focused educational and professional endeavor.

For these professionals, the ICD has created a pathway to become a Certified Professional Organizer in Chronic Disorganization, or CPO-CD®.

The certification pathway includes five levels:

  • Basic certificates of study (Level 1),
  • Specialist Certificates (Level 2),
  • Certified Professional Organizer In Chronic Disorganization (Level 3),
  • Training Program Coach (Level 4) and
  • Master Trainer (Level 5).

There is one basic, foundation certificate and ten specialty certificates of study at the first level, covering issues related to general chronic disorganization, special populations (e.g., students, the elderly, persons with ADD, etc.) and related issues. At the second level, the professional organizer may achieve Specialist status in chronic disorganization, ADD, hoarding, and/or aging.

Once a professional organizer has succeeded at the first two levels, he or she may work towards qualifying for the CPO-CD® designation. To begin, an organizer must be an ICD member currently working with at least one chronically disorganized client, have achieved a Specialist Certificate within the past two years, and meet specific class deadlines, as well as complete an application, pay a program fee, and sign an agreement of confidentiality with one’s assigned training program coach.

The process to become a CPO-CD® is mind-bendingly intense and not something to be entered into without serious consideration. Complete information regarding the program and requirements can be found at the ICD website.

Why Get Certified?

With all of this labor, why do we get certified? By taking courses and keeping up with the newest theories, strategies, resources and technologies, we commit to increasing our value to our clients and to the greater community, and we help expand the depth and breadth of our profession’s body of knowledge.

What other value does certification have?  It allows prospective clients the opportunity to evaluate the level of education and experience a professional organizer has achieved, as the BCPO and ICD only bestow certifications on those who have attained a level of professional experience and education commensurate with that certification.

Finally, oversight of the certification processes by the BCPO and ICD includes the power to investigate complaints of ethics violations. This extends to the ability to impose disciplinary sanctions and/or rescind certification.

All of the above advances the practice of professional organizing, either generally (for the CPO®) or for the chronic disorganization specialist (CPO-CD®), elevating the standards and ethics with which we practice our profession.

how to become professional organizer

Julie Bestry is a Certified Professional Organizer, speaker and author, who helps individuals and businesses save time and money, reduce stress and increase productivity through new organizational skills and systems. Although a generalist, Julie specializes in paper organizing and publishes Best Results for Busy People: Organizing Your Modern World. For more information, visit Best Results Organizing at http://www.juliebestry.com.

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