Public Justice Review


Standards for Excellence®: A Holistic Approach to Advancing the Sacred Missions of Faith-Based Civil Society Institutions

By Chelsea Langston Bombino with Amy Coates Madsen


Chelsea Langston Bombino serves as the director of Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice. In this role, Chelsea empowers faith-based organizations and future faith-based leaders to fully embody their sacred missions in every area of their organizational lives, including their public policy engagement, organizational practices and public positioning. Chelsea also serves as the director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance (IRFA), a division of the Center for Public Justice. ?She currently serves as an adjunct professor at Pepperdine's Washington D.C. campus, where she teaches nonprofit management. Chelsea is also the early childhood ministry coordinator for her church, Potomac Valley Assembly. Chelsea serves on the boards of Young Leaders Institute and First Amendment Voice. Chelsea holds a B.A and a J.D from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and is a member of the State of Michigan Bar Association. She is married to Josh and lives outside of Baltimore, Maryland.

Amy Coates Madsen is the director of programs for Maryland Nonprofits and the director of the Standards for Excellence® Institute, a national initiative to promote the highest standards of ethics and accountability in nonprofit governance, management, and operations, and to facilitate adherence to standards by all organizations. Amy received her Master of Arts in Policy Studies from the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Policy Studies in Baltimore, Maryland, and her bachelor’s degree from the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Virginia. Amy is a member of Phi Beta Kappa and was appointed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury to serve on the Internal Revenue Service Advisory Committee on Tax Exempt and Government Entities (ACT), serving one term as the co-chair of the ACT’s Exempt Organizations subcommittee. The Standards for Excellence Institute is a program of the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations where Amy has served for more than twenty-four years. Amy is responsible for coordinating all aspects of the association’s comprehensive ethics and accountability program and efforts to replicate the program nationally. She serves as a frequent trainer and writer in the areas of board conduct, program evaluation, program replication, fundraising ethics, and nonprofit management. She has taught courses on nonprofit ethics and accountability at the Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies Certificate Program on Nonprofit Management.  


Abstract: Contributing Editor Chelsea Langston Bombino, director of Sacred Sector for the Center for Public Justice spoke with Standards for Excellence director Amy Coates Madsen about how this initiative, specifically in partnership with CPJ’s Sacred Sector, helps uphold public justice. Chelsea begins the article by providing a framework for how CPJ’s Sacred Sector utilizes the Standards for Excellence resources to help nonprofit organizations. Then, Chelsea begins the Q&A with Amy Coates Madsen.  

CPJ’s Sacred Sector is a learning community for faith-based organizations and emerging leaders within the faith-based nonprofit sector. This is a community where the diverse faith-based nonprofit organizations that make up the Sacred Sector turn for resources, community and advocacy that helps them to advance their sacred missions. 

An integrative approach is vital for faith-based organizations to comprehensively embody their sacred missions to the fullest. This multi-dimensional approach must focus on mission-advancement at the intersection of organizational practices, engagement in public policy, and the shaping of a positive public perception.  


Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice, is a learning community for organizations and emerging leaders within the faith-based nonprofit sector. This learning community allows organizations to integrate and fully embody their sacred missions in every area of organizational life. 

In this community, diverse faith-based nonprofit organizations that make up the Sacred Sector access resources, build community and advocate in order to advance their sacred missions. CPJ created Sacred Sector after realizing that there was not a community for faith-based organizations and emerging leaders of different faiths and mission focus areas to equip, engage and empower each other. Organizations with sacred missions vary greatly in their faith identities and service areas, yet they all share the common goal of being able to fully incarnate their sacred missions in everything they do. Sacred Sector empowers organizations with diverse sacred missions to come together and fully incarnate their faith-based identities in how they advance organizational practices, engage in public policy, and shape public perception. 

For faith-based organizations to comprehensively embody their sacred missions to the fullest, an innovative and integrative approach is vital. This multi-dimensional approach must focus on mission-advancement at the intersection of organizational practices, public policy, and positive public perception. The Three P’s framework recognizes that an organization’s public policy engagement, organizational best practices, and public positioning are interconnected and extremely vital to fulfilling its sacred mission.

Public Policy

Organizations with sacred missions need to support and promote the structures and systems that enable  them to thrive. These organizations can have varying religious identities (or none) and varying mission areas, but a central question remains: what public policy structures (laws or regulations) — on a local, state or federal level — will create an environment where diverse institutions can provide creative and distinctly faith-shaped solutions to our most pressing societal challenges? Faith organizations with sacred missions should become familiar with and advocate for pluralist public policies that create space for organizational diversity and innovative approaches to solving complex community issues so all can flourish.

Organizational Practices

Faith-based organizations should consider how they are stewarding their diverse, sacred missions. Just as government has the responsibility to uphold public policies that allow for diverse faith organizations to flourish, faith organizations themselves also have a responsibility to abide in organizational practices that are consistently and explicitly connected to their sacred missions. Faith organizations ought to steward their freedom to live out their sacred missions in the public square responsibly by making their faith-based practices clear in their organizing documents, in their employment practices, in how they provide services, in the partnerships they form with government, businesses, individuals and other civil society organizations, and in every other aspect of their organizational lives.

Public Positioning

Organizations with sacred missions should consider how to engage creatively to craft a positive public perception of diverse faith-based organizations, including shaping culture. Stories need to be told of distinctive organizations oriented to the sacred that are serving in innovative ways, from Muslim modeling agencies to Pagan food banks and Adventist health providers. Faith-based organizations should be fluent in stories of organizations both like and unlike their own. Advocating for space for diverse organizations to thrive does not just protect their own organizations, it also protects organizations with whom they disagree–sometimes deeply.

Shalom and Public Justice in the Sacred Sector

Amy Zittelow, in a recent Center for Public Justice report Called to Care: Honoring Elders and the Family Care Journey, writes: “Flourishing is another word for peace or shalom. Shalom, in Hebrew, is, according to Cornelius Plantinga, “universal flourishing, wholeness and delight—a rich state of affairs in which natural needs are satisfied and natural gifts fruitfully employed, a state of affairs that inspires joyful wonder as its Creator and Savior opens doors and welcomes the creatures in whom [God] delights. Shalom, in other words, is the way things ought to be. Government has a vital role to play in fostering a healthy society and human flourishing. Good public policy supports primary social institutions such as the family, looks out for those who are most vulnerable in a society, and helps diverse social institutions work harmoniously.”

Faith-based nonprofit organizations fulfill distinct and divergent roles in modern American life. Congregations serve as primary worshipping communities and centers for spiritual and social capital. Faith-based social services care for those at the beginning and end of life, as well as most stages in between. Spiritually-focused educational institutions form the intellectual, developmental and character aspects of the human person from infancy through post-secondary education. Religious nonprofits provide for the material needs of the most vulnerable among us through housing, nutrition assistance, financial support, clothing, supported employment, and much more. The diversity of America’s sacred sector, both in its representation of different sacred animating beliefs and different organizational purposes, requires that we, as citizens, seek to uphold the capacity of these distinct organizations to live out what they believe to be their right roles and responsibilities. Shalom will only be realized when organizations that represent the diverse spheres of creation fully incarnate their distinctive organizational identities.  Shalom also requires that these organizations strive to understand the distinct political and cultural context in which they are operating, including understanding the distinct role of government in contributing to human flourishing through both mediating between and partnering with such a diversity of institutions (both faith-based and secular) in our pluralistic society.

Public justice is God’s good purpose for our political community. Public justice recognizes that much of what contributes to human flourishing is not government’s role. But also recognizes that government must play a positive role in promoting policies and practices that uphold the ability of other institutions, including diverse organizations with sacred missions, to make their full contributions to human flourishing.  The principle of public justice also recognizes that much of what contributes to human flourishing is government’s role. Government is authorized by God to promote what is good for human flourishing within the political community. This is often referred to as securing the political common good: the role of government and citizens in promoting the well-being of an entire society.

Standards for Excellence - Promoting Public Justice

Essential to the vision of advancing public justice is empowering diverse faith-based nonprofit institutions to fully incarnate their proper roles and responsibilities. For civil society institutions to responsibly uphold their organizational callings, they need tools and resources to build their capacities to consistently embody the highest standards and mission integrity through ethics and accountability, aligned with their animating beliefs and values. The Center for Public Justice partners with the Standards for Excellence Institute® to build the capacity of diverse faith-based nonprofits and congregations to live out their distinct responsibilities and freedoms with the integrity that their faith-based organizations call them to. CPJ, through its partnership with the Standards for Excellence Institute, seeks to enhance the quality, integrity and vitality of U.S. civic life through the promotion of a vigorous civil society in which both the diversity and integrity of diverse nonprofits are respected, protected and encouraged. The Standards for Excellence® is a national initiative that promotes ethical practices and accountability in the nonprofit sector. The Center for Public Justice, through Sacred Sector, is a licensed replication partner of the Standards for Excellence® program. The Standards for Excellence: An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector covers the following areas of nonprofit operations: Mission, Strategy and Evaluation; Leadership: Board, Staff and Volunteers; Legal Compliance and Ethics; Finance and Operations; Resource Development; and Public Awareness, Engagement and Advocacy.

Chelsea Langston Bombino, director of Sacred Sector for CPJ recently spoke with Standards for Excellence Director Amy Coates Madsen about how this initiative, specifically in partnership with Sacred Sector, helps uphold public justice through empowering organizations to advance their distinctive and diverse missions with ethics and consistency.

CLB: What comprises the Standards for Excellence code?

ACM: The Standards for Excellence: An Ethics and Accountability Code for Nonprofits is divided into six areas, each with an aspirational Guiding Principle. The six key areas include:  

I. Mission, Strategy, and Evaluation

II. Leadership: Board Staff, and Volunteers

III. Legal Compliance and Ethics

IV. Finance and Operations

V. Resource Development

VI. Public Awareness, Engagement, and Advocacy

There are 67 performance indicators, or standards, that support the six Guiding Principles on fundamental values such as honesty, integrity, fairness, respect, trust, responsibility, and accountability. In order to meet these requirements, our organization has implemented all of the Standards, including having a well-defined mission, good governance practices, conflict of interest procedures, sound financial management, and compliance with legal and regulatory requirements.  We are committed to helping nonprofits in the sector improve their governance and management.

CLB: What are the standards based on?  

ACM: The Standards for Excellence is based on fundamental values that promote ethical and accountable practices. We know these are key values for nonprofits — especially faith-based organizations. We are thrilled to partner with Sacred Sector organizations to help them identify, communicate, and nurture these principles.

CLB: What is the goal of CPJ’s Standards for Excellence program?

ACM: The Standards for Excellence program sets high standards and promotes excellence and accountability for nonprofits through self-regulation. In this way, Standards for Excellence aligns with a public justice vision recognizing that civil society institutions play an essential role in advancing quality of life for diverse American communities. The goals of the Standards for Excellence program are (1) to strengthen nonprofits and (2) to help increase the public’s trust in nonprofit organizations and, in partnership with CPJ, specifically faith-based organizations. The Standards for Excellence also connects potential donors and volunteers with nonprofits that act ethically and are accountable in their program operations, governance, human resources, financial management and fundraising practices. CPJ is one of several nonprofit regional and affiliate nonprofit associations that are licensed Replication Partners of the Standards for Excellence Institute. Each organization has its own rationale for partnering with the Institute. Standards for Excellence helps promote one of CPJ’s primary purposes to inspire institutions of civil society with a vision of justice, equipped with the tools needed to work towards such a vision. Standards for Excellence does this in the following ways:?

  • To empower Sacred Sector to launch a fully developed, comprehensive program of nonprofit capacity building without spending years in program development;   
  • To provide a valuable, customized and researched resources to faith-based nonprofits that will help them achieve their missions; 
  • To reassure the public that faith-based nonprofits embrace ethical and accountable operations; 
  • To re-evaluate and strengthen our program offerings; and 
  • To build a stronger, more informed faith-based nonprofit community.?

CLB: How were the Standards for Excellence developed?  

ACM: The Standards for Excellence program, introduced in 1998, was developed by Maryland Nonprofits over a two-year period by a working group of fifty nonprofit executives, board leaders, and consultants. In September 2012, the Standards for Excellence Institute began an in-depth review of the initiative to ensure that the program and all of its resources were providing the guidance that nonprofits need to operate in the modern environment. The effort engaged a national taskforce of over thirty thought leaders in the nonprofit sector. The taskforce completed a full review of the Standards for Excellence program and its impact, including the code and program delivery. The result of this 2012–2013 taskforce was a second version of the Standards for Excellence program which was released in 2014.

CLB: Why is the Standards for Excellence code important?  

ACM: Nonprofit organizations, as tax-exempt entities that, in many cases, are dependent on the generosity and trust of others, face sharp scrutiny to operate effectively and ethically. This scrutiny is intensified in the midst of scandals that are circulated through the media and raise concerns about accountability within the nonprofit sector. The Standards for Excellence Institute can empower organizations to exceed the minimum legal requirements of local, state and federal regulations and to ensure they are fulfilling their obligations to those they serve, to their supporters, and to the public.

CLB: Is the Standards for Excellence Program making a difference? What results have you seen?  

ACM: Yes. A university study of 102 nonprofit organizations that have received the Standards for Excellence accreditation compared with peer organizations of similar size and industry examined the impact of earning accreditation. One significant finding is that the process is associated with an increase in direct public support. 

Researchers found that nonprofit organizations’ stakeholders react positively to organizations earning the Standards for Excellence accreditation by allocating more resources to the nonprofit. The Standards for Excellence program provides a structured approach to improved operations and quality management, delivering years of benchmarking and best practices to organizations’ leadership, and a “Good Housekeeping”-type seal of approval to outside stakeholders. This “seal” indicates that the organization is performing as promised after a comprehensive evaluation by practitioners and industry experts.

CLB: How does the Standards for Excellence Program, in partnership with organizations like CPJ, support all civil society organizations to fulfill their distinct roles and responsibilities in the public square, thereby promoting justice? 

ACM: America has a rich diversity of different nonprofits to meet our community members’ varied interests and needs. In the past few decades, the number of civil society organizations across the country have gone up dramatically. With this rise in nonprofits, we have also seen a rise in the expectations around professionalism in the nonprofit sector and the expectations the public has that nonprofits uphold the highest standards of stewardship and responsibility. Nonprofits hold the public trust. Standards for Excellence promotes ethics and accountability for a diversity of nonprofits, from healthcare institutions, to congregations, to advocacy groups. All of these organizations have distinct missions and organizational identities, yet they share in common a need to earn the trust of their donor, community members, public officials and the public at large. Standards for Excellence’s partnership with Sacred Sector seeks to provide the guidance and resources many congregational communities and faith-based organizations want and need to fully live out their sacred beliefs and purposes, upholding their faith with consistency and integrity. We believe that as organizations strive for excellence in everything they do, they can more effectively advance justice by incarnating their distinct roles and responsibilities in the public square.


About the Standards for Excellence Institute  

The Standards for Excellence originated as a special initiative of Maryland Nonprofits in 1998 and has since expanded into a national program to help nonprofit organizations achieve the highest benchmarks of ethics and accountability in nonprofit governance, management and operations. The program has been formally adopted by twelve state, regional, and national affiliate organizations. It is supported by over 170 Licensed Consultants and over 100 volunteers with professional experience in nonprofit governance and administration. Since its inception, the program has accredited or recognized over 200 individual nonprofit organizations that completed a rigorous application and review process to demonstrate adherence to the Standards for Excellence: An Ethics and Accountability Code for the Nonprofit Sector.


To respond to the author of this article, please email The articles in Public Justice Review do not represent a consensus of positions on questions of public policy. We do not expect our readers will agree with all the arguments they find here, but we believe that within the broad tradition of what we call public justice we can do more by providing a forum for the debate and exchange of Christians, within those bounds, to work out public policy faithful to God and in service of our neighbors. We do not necessarily share the views expressed, but we do accept responsibility for giving them a chance to appear.