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The Official Baldrige Blog

How to Get Involved with Baldrige Communities of Excellence

Communities of Excellence 2026 meeting with Lowell Kruse speaking to a group of people seated around a conference room table.

COE 2026 Chair Lowell Kruse welcomes participants from ten communities to the COE 2026 National Learning Collaborative kick-off event in Tempe, AZ, in October 2017.

Credit: Communities of Excellence 2026

From Backyard Conversation to Engaged Communities

Communities of Excellence 2026 has come a long way since it was conceived in a backyard conversation between two leaders of Baldrige Award-winning organizations several years ago. 

Today, the nonprofit organization counts ten very different communities across the country engaged in pilot efforts to strengthen the long-term economic vitality of U.S. communities through cross-sector, collaborative use of the (modified) Baldrige Excellence Framework to improve business, health care, and educational, and related societal indicators. Beginning last May with five pilot sites, Communities of Excellence (COE) 2026 engaged five additional U.S. communities in October of 2017 in a learning initiative related to using the community-modified Baldrige framework for their local improvement efforts.

COE 2026 leaders are shown standing for a group photo with awards.
Leaders from five communities (Brookfield/Marceline, MO; Kanawha County, WV; Maryville, MO; San Diego County South Region, CA; and West Kendall, FL) receive Commitment to Community  Excellence Recognition; the new honor was given by Communities of Excellence 2026 in partnership with the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program during the 2017 Baldrige Fall Conference in Tempe, AZ.
Credit: COE 2026; photo used with permission.


Insights from the Communities of Excellence 2026 Director

head shot of Stephanie Norling
Stephanie Norling


Communities of Excellence 2026

“I’m very proud of our first-ever group of ten communities that joined our National Learning Collaborative to adopt the Communities of Excellence Framework last October,” said Stephanie Norling, who has directed the nonprofit COE 2026 since its founding. 

“At our first in-person meeting at the Baldrige Fall Conference, we had about 40 participants from the ten communities and a handful of faculty and guests. The first joke was cracked about 20 minutes in—establishing a jovial spirit for the meeting. That set the tone for the remainder of the conference. By the end of the first day, the group in the next room had to ask us to quiet down because they couldn’t hear sometimes over our laughter.”

When asked to describe the different ways in which organizations have been participating in the COE 2026 initiatives, Norling shared the following updates and insights:

Our communities are focusing on leadership capacity building and strategic planning this year, so many of the benefits we’re seeing focus on these aspects of the COE journey. One of my favorite comments came from Michelle Mejia with West Kendall Baptist Health in West Kendall, Florida. In a presentation to community leaders gathering for a launch of their Education Committee, she said, “COE is a gift. It’s given us a new direction and focus.”

I think for many of our communities, the COE Framework [a version of the Baldrige Excellence Framework adapted to facilitate use by communities], provides a pathway forward that may not have been as clear before. Building a sustainable leadership team was and continues to be a challenge for many, but we’ve seen time and again that the process of answering the questions in the Community Profile [the prefatory section of the resource] has served as an effective tool for engaging new leaders and [attracting those in multiple sectors to the COE initiatives]. Answering those questions has highlighted gaps in knowledge and increased engagement across the community.

In the San Diego South Region, the team is launching an improvement project around Voice of the Resident (VOR) data. In a region of 500,000 people with scores of organizations and businesses all doing separate surveying and data collection, the team saw an opportunity to inventory what surveys are being conducted and then identify gaps in information and repetitive information, with the goal of developing a more efficient VOR process.This project has the potential to save time for organizations, save money spent on surveying, and limit the number of surveys that residents are taking—a win for organizations involved and the community.

According to Norling, important ways that communities can benefit from using the COE-adapted Baldrige framework include the following:

  • Category 2 of the Communities of Excellence Framework asks how your community conducts its strategic planning and who is involved in accomplishing it. Most organizations have corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities through which they support their community. Aligning your organization’s CSR activities to the broader priorities of the community will achieve much more significant impact than isolated projects or activities. 
  • Category 3 asks about the residents and other customers in your community and their requirements. These are usually the same individuals using an organization’s services. Having a deeper understanding of your residents (customers) can help organizations better provide their goods and services and be more responsive to community needs.

“Ultimately, I think the key reason to get involved in COE 2026 is that an organization is more likely to thrive in a community that is thriving.” 

Learn How Your Community Can Get Involved

Want to learn how your community can get involved in the movement? At the Baldrige Program’s upcoming Quest for Excellence® Conference in Baltimore, MD, Norling is planning a panel session to present the latest information on the COE 2026 initiatives and answer questions from conference attendees on how other communities can join.

As Norling noted recently, “We have put together a panel of community leaders from three of our COE Learning Collaborative communities: Brenda Grant from Kanawha County, WV (of the Baldrige Award-winning Charleston Area Medical Center), Angela Brant from Toledo, OH (of ProMedica), and Nick Macchione from San Diego.” (Macchione is director of San Diego County’s Health and Human Services Agency and also the Baldrige Foundation’s 2018 Harry Hertz Leadership Award recipient.) 

“All three are leaders in the backbone organization supporting their Communities of Excellence journey and are role-model leaders in this effort,” said Norling. “The panelists will discuss sustainable leadership, the characteristics of strong backbone organizations, and how to build the capacity in communities to make this journey successful. In addition, I will share some stories from the Learning Collaborative that have been particularly inspiring or insightful.”

Three Points of Guidance for Your Community

For those interested in introducing or sustaining use of the COE-adapted Baldrige framework, Norling offers three key points of guidance:

Recognize the need for change.
This journey has to start with a recognition for a need for change. If your organization is considering serving as a catalyst for change in your community, a good start is to ask yourself and others in your community,  What do we want this community to be? What does change in that direction look like?

Develop an inclusive leadership base.
At the same time, this requires an inclusive community leadership system that represents all sectors and generations and through which all are equal players in the future of the community. A strong backbone organization can serve as a role model for community values, act as a neutral facilitator, and continue to question who else should be included that isn’t. 

Leverage community members' knowledge of the Baldrige framework.
Finally, we’ve found that this journey can be accelerated if there are individuals or organizations knowledgeable about Baldrige that are willing to support their community in these efforts. The framework provides the direction and focus, but it takes a shared vision and strong community leadership to sustain it.


Baldrige 30th Anniversary Logo artwork

Quest for Excellence® Conference

BALTIMORE | April 8–11, 2018
Join us for the 30th Anniversary Quest for Excellence Conference showcasing the best practices of the 2017 Baldrige Award recipients!


Sunday, April 8
Join us Sunday evening for the Award Ceremony and Dinner honoring the 2017 recipients.

Register Now | Book Your Hotel Room

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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