All public agencies strive to demonstrate their overall value to the government and public they serve. As local communities come to depend on parks and recreation more than ever for important services related to recreation, health, youth engagement, education, and job training, park and recreation departments are seeking programs that help define industry standards, strengthen services, and secure public support.

Since 1989, the National Recreation and Park Association’s (NRPA’s) Commission for Accreditation of Park and Recreation Agencies (CAPRA) has recognized park and recreation departments in the U.S. for excellence in operations.

As outlined in the 4th Edition of “CAPRA Standards 2009,” accreditation is based on compliance with 144 standards, including 36 fundamental standards and at least 85 percent of 108 remaining standards related to the management and administration of lands, facilities, resources, programs, services, and safety. Valid for five years, accreditation is available to all entities administering park and recreation systems, including municipalities, townships, counties, special districts, regional authorities, councils of government, schools, and military installations.

According to Greg Mack, chair of NRPA’s CAPRA committee and director of Ramsey County Parks and Recreation, Minn., it is the process of accreditation from which most agencies truly benefit—through the involvement of public officials and citizens, and the development of strong master plans, policies, and procedures, which strengthen and position agencies.

“Accreditation is completion of the journey,” said Mack. “It’s the elements of the 144 standards themselves that make the difference. The seal is an acknowledgement is that I have done the very best I can for my agency…and I’m positioned now to do what I need to do.”

“Accreditation has been a great management tool for our organization,” said Dirk Richwine, recreation superintendent for Henderson, Nev., adding that the process of accreditation helped the city establish best practices in areas such as risk management, recreation program planning, staff training, and park maintenance. “By having to update them regularly, we use them on a regular basis, and this helps to keep our performance standards strong,” said Richwine.

Agencies across the nation are embracing accreditation, from municipalities to military garrisons. As stated by Colonel Matthew T. Margotta, U.S. Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command chief of staff, “As every operational commander is taught early in his career…you must have the ability to ‘see yourself.’ You must fully understand—what are your capabilities, what are your strengths, what are your weaknesses, and most importantly, are you providing the services and support that your soldiers, families, and community members need and desire? The CAPRA accreditation process does that.”

The program—which involves both self-assessment and peer review—is also viewed as a good vehicle to assure the public that the agency meets national standards of best practice.

Glendale, Ariz’s., Park and Recreation Director Becky Benná believes that it’s important to use programs like CAPRA to justify support from the public and decision makers. She stated some of the biggest benefits to accreditation as “organization credibility and positive recognition as a high-performing department.”

Both Benná and Art Anselene, park and recreation director for Herndon, Va., in 2005 during their first accreditation round, note the importance of accreditation for parks and recreation, much like other public departments use accreditation to validate their services, such as police and fire.

“When a department is accredited, it sets the tone that you are a well-managed and well-run department,” said Anselene.

Benná also noted that CAPRA gave Glendale a means of communication, adding that “it [CAPRA] helps synthesize information for not only decision-makers, but also staff.”

“Everyone working for a public recreation and parks agency is constantly explaining what we do, and how it benefits the community,” said Laura Wetherald, chief of recreation services for Howard County Recreation and Parks in Columbia, Md. “CAPRA accreditation has been the perfect tool to educate those we serve and the agencies with whom we partner about our services and our mission.”

Agency accreditation can help influence and motivate departmental improvements, as illustrated by the success of Westchester County Parks in New York. According to Parks Commissioner Joseph Stout, the agency was struggling to meet the changing needs of the community, as changes to the county’s demographic makeup resulted in the increased popularity of competitive team sports and the demand for active-recreation venues quickly began to outstrip supply.

Around the same time, Westchester County had begun a Legacy Program for capital enhancements to the county’s open space system, and had just started the process of CAPRA accreditation.

“Since forging partnerships among park and recreation agencies…is an important activity for agencies seeking accreditation, the new inter-municipal relationships developed as the Legacy program got underway were well timed,” acknowledged Stout. “CAPRA accreditation truly helped us capitalize on our expertise in facility development and combine it with the local municipalities’ experience with grassroots sports and recreational programming to create sorely-needed facilities.”

The benefits of the program are not limited to public perception and program improvements. The 2008 study “Recreation Accreditation: It Does Make a Difference” by Dr. Ira Mark Rubins determined that achieving accreditation results in internal benefits, such as increased staff morale and motivation, and the promotion of organizational excellence and professionalism.

“The accreditation process touches all levels of an agency,” said William J. Tschirhart of Kettering Parks, Recreation and Cultural Arts—the first agency in Ohio to become accredited.

“The shared experience of developing the action plan is a great team-building exercise. It fosters a climate of resource sharing and collaboration that translates into greater overall organization efficiency and effectiveness,” noted John Henderson, CAPRA Accreditation Manager of The Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission.

Wetherald added, “It is a prime point in every employee’s resume that they work for an accredited agency.”

Rubins’ study mentions the perception held by some agencies that the accreditation process is difficult or complex. Anselene, who supervised a small department in 2005 and 2006, said that while the process was not without challenges, the staff—all of whom were involved in some way—rose to those challenges and benefited greatly.

“It brought everyone together,” he said.

“CAPRA has increased the confidence of our citizens in our entire operation,” said Wetherald. “It has been worth every hour spent on achieving it and now, in maintaining it.”

The bottom line regarding agency accreditation is clear—it is essential to producing a team environment, public support, and most importantly—quality services and programs for communities.

More about CAPRA accreditation is available through NRPA at