Inevitably, someone asks, “How do you become a Certified Professional Organizer?” As a veteran of the profession, a member of the National Association of Productivity and Organizing Professionals (NAPO), 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. There are professional experience and educational requirements, exams and ethical obligations. This helps standardize the body of knowledge in a field that is complex and far-reaching.
The certification program is overseen by the Board of Certified Professional Organizers (BCPO). It was more than a decade in the making. It ensures that the educational requirements are stringent and yet applicable to all in a field ranging from residential generalists to those who specialize in special-needs clients (e.g., those with ADHD or traumatic brain injuries), from financial organizing experts to unfailingly kind and patient hoarding specialists.
First, what are the requirements for becoming a professional organizer? 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.
- Provide documentation to prove a total of 1,500 hours of paid work experience in five years before 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. For example, you can substitute up to 100 hours for college and advanced degrees. You can include credit hours for other types of continuing education related to professional organizing. Candidates can also substitute hours for paid speaking engagements, publishing books, and authoring articles. There are a variety of other endeavors considered valuable as preparation for becoming certified too. For specific details regarding the intricacies of which substitute hours are allowed, see the NAPO website Certification section.
Candidates submit documentation in support of their credentials (including proof of work and substitute hours, degrees achieved, etc.) with their application to sit for the exam. BCPO audits a randomly selected percentage of applicants to verify their eligibility. Because five (or more) years of documentation is needed, it’s wise to start organizing proof of qualifications early in your organizing career.
The Big Test
Once candidates have submitted all the required proof, they are ready to sit for the computer-based, multiple-choice exam. And, they must pay the application fee.
The exam covers six areas of content with which a professional organizer seeking certification should be familiar. Preliminary communication and assessments make up 12% and 18% of the exam, respectively. Project plan development and implementation reflect 16% and 31% of the exam content, with follow-up and maintenance accounting for 12%. Knowledge of legal and ethical responsibilities constitutes the final 11% of the exam content.
This is definitely not Underwater Basketweaving 101.
For those interested in preparing for the exam, the NAPO website has detailed information and a suggested reading list to help aspirants prepare.
Becoming certified is just the beginning. Each CPO®‘s term of certification is only three years. During this time, they will continue learning, studying and generally geeking out on all the exciting things to learn about the profession of organizing. Near the end of the three years, each CPO® may apply for a 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. It’s like having to attend every 8 a.m. class in college, or they’ll make you take the SATs again!
What About CPO-CDs?
The CPO® designation is governed by the BCPO and intended as a qualification that any professional organizer – generalist or specialist – might pursue. However, professional organizers who are members of NAPO (or related international associations) and/or subscribers to the Institute for Challenging Disorganization (ICD) have an opportunity to reach a higher level in a more narrowly focused educational professional endeavor. For these professionals, the ICD has created a pathway to becoming 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)
- Communication Mentor (Level 4)
- Master Trainer in CD and Organization Overview (Level 5)
There is one basic foundation certificate and nine specialty certificates of study at the first level. They cover issues related to general chronic disorganization, special populations (e.g., students, the elderly, persons with ADHD, etc.) and related issues. The professional organizer may achieve Specialist status in chronic disorganization, ADHD, hoarding, and/or aging at the second level.
A professional organizer who has succeeded at the first two levels may work toward qualifying for the CPO-CD® designation. Candidates for the credential must be ICD subscribers currently working with at least three clients and must have prior experience working with at least five chronically disorganized clients. Each candidate is assigned an experienced CPO-CD® program mentor and works one-on-one toward the completion of a 17-20 month program focused on the issues of chronic disorganization. Organizers must also complete an application, pay a program fee, sign an agreement of confidentiality with their assigned mentor, and agree to participate in ICD’s service program.
The process to become a CPO-CD® is mind-bendingly intense. You should seriously consider the implications before entering into it. You can find more information regarding the program and requirements on 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 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. In fact, 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.
About today’s guest blogger:
Learn more about Julie Bestry.
This article was published at an earlier date and has since been updated.