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The Official Baldrige Blog

Community-Focused Excellence: Something New on the Horizon

COE 2026 logo
Credit: COE 2026

About five years ago, two former leaders of Baldrige Award-winning organizations had a friendly conversation at a backyard social event. The two American executives, who had both worked with health care organizations, discussed the need for a fundamentally new way to address the nation’s problems. In particular, they considered the challenge of improving community health and education—and the economy, too.

That conversation led to ambitious plans to cultivate an “archipelago” of high-performing, healthy communities in the United States. In each community, leaders of organizations from different sectors would work together to achieve and maintain excellence on  measures of health, education, and economic vitality (including employment). They would do so using a framework based on the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence.

The initiative is now known as Communities of Excellence 2026. The story of its conception was conveyed to me recently by Stephanie Norling, the organization’s managing director. The founders were Lowell Kruse, who had led Heartland Health from 1984 until 2009 when the organization received the Baldrige Award; and Richard Norling, who served at the helm of health care alliance Premier Inc. (PDF) when that organization became a Baldrige Award recipient in 2006.

Kruse and Norling incorporated Communities of Excellence 2026 as a national, independent nonprofit organization in 2013. According to the organization’s foundational document, its aim is “to advance the common good by providing the roadmap for a journey to sustainable community performance excellence.” Stephanie Norling pointed out that the name Communities of Excellence 2026 is based on the 250th anniversary of the United States’ founding as a nation.

As the foundational document states, “Building on the foundation of democracy and liberty established by the nation’s founders, communities engaged with Communities of Excellence 2026 will have set America on course to again lead the world in health status, educational attainment, economic prosperity, and other key measures of community health and well-being.” The organization envisions that participants in the initiative “will consistently be the top-performing communities in the nation and their success will meaningfully influence others across the country to strive for community performance excellence.”

Norling explained that the initiative will help communities work together across sectors and “support them to implement the framework, measure progress, define their practices and capabilities, and benchmark” their success. “We’d like to help communities develop collaborative practices to implement sustained community change,” she said. “Communities are the level where improvements can be made most effectively,” she added, invoking an observation by Don Berwick, former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In Berwick’s letter of support for Communities of Excellence 2026, he writes,  

My past experience as president and CEO of the Institute for Healthcare Improvement and as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services convinces me that traction for real change is best achieved at the level of the community. A smaller subset of actors lacks the leverage needed to act on the system as a whole, and larger aggregates tend too often to get stuck in political complexity. To act effectively, however, communities need the guidance of a conceptual framework, and an adapted Baldrige Criteria set hold great promise as such a framework. As a former member of the Panel of Judges for the Baldrige program, I know how deep that framework is.

Norling explained that her organization is planning three-year pilots in four settings: a small rural community, a rural region, a small urban area, and a large urban area. The first three pilot sites identified as ideal settings are Lake City, Iowa (a small rural community); northwest Missouri (an 18-county rural region); and Rochester, Minnesota (a small urban area). Selecting a large urban community is still in process. “The idea is that at the end of the pilot phase, we will have a fully refined and tested framework,” Norling said.

She stressed that the Baldrige Criteria-based framework will provide communities with a consistent approach to improving performance. The adapted framework initially focuses on health, education, and economic prosperity, but future participants in the initiative may choose to add a focus on improving performance in other sectors. How can community leaders and others learn more about the progress of this initiative? “We’re rolling out a new website and blog,” said Norling. She encourages anyone interested in more information to contact her at snorling [at] (snorling[at]communitiesofexcellence2026[dot]org).

Editor’s Note: Baldrige Program Director Bob Fangmeyer recently accepted an invitation to join the board of directors of Communities of Excellence 2026.

About the author

Christine Schaefer

Christine Schaefer is a longtime staff member of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program (BPEP). Her work has focused on producing BPEP publications and communications. She also has been highly involved in the Baldrige Award process, Baldrige examiner training, and other offerings of the program.

She is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Virginia, where she was an Echols Scholar and a double major, receiving highest distinction for her thesis in the interdisciplinary Political & Social Thought Program. She also has a master's degree from Georgetown University, where her studies and thesis focused on social and public policy issues. 

When not working, she sits in traffic in one of the most congested regions of the country, receives consolation from her rescued beagles, writes poetry, practices hot yoga, and tries to cultivate a foundation for three kids to direct their own lifelong learning (and to PLEASE STOP YELLING at each other—after all, we'll never end wars if we can't even make peace at home!).

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As someone who is collaborating with Lowell, Rick, Stephanie and the COE 2026 team as a volunteer, I offer my strong support for “Communities of Excellence 2026” and for the vision of using a validated improvement framework – Baldrige – to improve health status, educational attainment, economic vitality, and other key community outcomes across the US. We have all seen the impact Baldrige has had on improving performance of American hospitals, schools, nonprofits and governmental agencies, and businesses. It improves outcomes, aligns activities, and optimizes resources. I am convinced that the same framework that has proven effective at improving outcomes WITHIN organizations could be effective at improving outcomes ACROSS organizations in communities. I am also convinced that the Communities of Excellence 2026 vision will help community leaders – both formal and informal – better allocate resources, solve problems, and address some of the pervasive challenges we face as a nation. I believe this country needs bold, innovative solutions to address our complex problems. What better Framework to help us through that than Baldrige?! I look forward to reading what others the "the Baldrige community" think of this concept...
As a 20 year plus Baldrige veteran, part of the international outreach community (I live in New Zealand, but have mostly worked on 'Baldrige' projects in SE Asia, and have been through the US examiner training), I've spent most of my time adapting Baldrige for private-label and non-award purposes. Currently working with a client in Malaysia to localise and customise the criteria as a value-adding audit tool. I also teach a business excellence qualification at Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand, and my mature, work-based learners are steeped in Baldrige as a best-practice diagnostic tool. The core criteria questions are infinitely adaptable. The idea of applying them in a community context is exciting. I think that's where much of the future for searching framework analysis lies - not as the basis of award schemes, but as a way of thinking and working that enables breakthrough change.
Anecdote supports the notion that communities that have higher overall health status, a better educated workforce, and offer their residents a "best place to live" experience have found a way to collaborate across government departments, and across the sectors of public services, health, and education. This project offers the opportunity to support anecdote with data, and to provide data supported best practices for other communities and regions to adopt. Congratulations Bob Fangmeyer on your appointment to the board of CoE 2026. They will be glad they chose you!
Thanks you very much. ..

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