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The Official Baldrige Blog

What's Happening Now with Communities of Excellence 2026?

Collage of photos depicting groups of people posing together at various COE 2026 events.

It started with a big idea—about improving the quality of life in the United States. Cross-sector collaboration was a central part of it. Essentially, the vision was to use the Baldrige Excellence Framework® to help communities and entire regions of the United States not only boost their economies but also their health and education outcomes. 

Not surprisingly, the 11-year-old nonprofit Communities of Excellence 2026(COE) emerged as the brainchild of two former senior leaders of Baldrige Award-winning organizations. As shared in a 2015 blog, Lowell Kruse and Richard Norling, former chief executives of high-performing health care and business organizations, respectively, conceived the idea during a conversation at a backyard social event.

Communities of Excellence 2026 has come a long way since then. It now offers a community-adapted version of the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence, as well as virtual and in-person educational initiatives involving diverse communities from across the country. And it continues to grow. Today the nonprofit can boast of having served 26 communities since 2017, reaching 450 organizations and 12.5 million U.S. residents.

Benefits and Tips for Getting Started 

According to Stephanie Norling, who has served as executive director of the small nonprofit since it was established, “I think the key reason that communities can benefit from adopting the Communities of Excellence Framework is that nothing we do happens in a vacuum, and too often we address our community challenges in a way that looks more at the individual parts of a community than the whole.” 

Norling has noted that a fundamental Baldrige-based practice for many participants in COE is community-based strategic planning. “Looking at the needs of residents across the entire system and leveraging the people, plans, and resources of multiple sectors and organizations reveals opportunities for alignment and synergy, addresses duplication of efforts, and increases overall impact,” she said.

“For example, in San Diego’s South Region, a Community of Excellence 2026 site, this process resulted in collaborative efforts to address smoking cessation and workforce readiness. Another example is the Toledo community’s combined efforts in workforce development,” she added. “Other communities are focusing their efforts to advance key priorities such as broadband access, affordable housing, and transportation.” 

Norling has given several presentations introducing the COE approach and offerings at Baldrige events, including BPEP’s annual Quest for Excellence® Conference. Here are a few tips she shared for introducing or sustaining use of the COE/Baldrige framework:

  1. Agree on and stay true to your purpose (why you exist) as a community excellence group. Having a shared understanding of why you are all around the table builds trust and engagement, and it helps communicate to others what you’re doing and how they can be a part of the journey. When challenges present themselves, your purpose will re-ground you in why you are coming together. 
  2. Distribute the leadership and the responsibilities for the work across the community as much as possible. A community of excellence can’t be led by a single sector or a single organization. As we’ve seen during the pandemic, when disasters occur, we have to adjust and be able to respond rapidly. A situation that affects an entire system such as a community cannot be addressed by a single sector or a single entity. 
  3. Reinforce that this is a journey of continuous improvement, not a single project. Including leaders in your effort who understand this and will work with this mindset will set you up for success. 
  4. Celebrate your successes, no matter how small (or big)!

Latest Offerings and Events

On the Path to Excellence: Insights from Saratoga County's Communities of Excellence Journey

Tuesday, May 7, 2024 | 9:00 am - 10:00 am Pacific Time/12:00 pm - 1:00 pm Eastern Time

COE 2026’s National Learning Collaborative, launched in October 2017, continues to thrive in 2024. A complimentary webinar to be held on May 7 (at 12 pm Eastern Time) will share the experience of a National Learning Collaborative participant—Saratoga County, New York—in addressing challenges and opportunities, as well as in cultivating a culture of collaboration and growth. According to Norling, the webinar aims to provide practical insights and actionable tips to kickstart other communities’ journey toward success through the National Learning Collaborative. Those interested in this webinar can register online. 

On the Path to Excellence: Insights from Greater Fremont, Ohio's Communities of Excellence Journey

Thursday, June 13, 2024 | 1 pm Eastern Time

A second complimentary webinar will be held on June 13 (at 1 pm Eastern Time) featuring another National Learning Collaborative participant—Greater Fremont, Ohio—that started its improvement journey more recently than others. Online registration is also available for this webinar. 

Would your community be interested in joining the National Learning Collaborative? The next cohort will be launched in October 2024. Read more about the initiative and register online. 

Member of the Alliance for Performance Excellence 

COE is also now a member program of the nonprofit Alliance for Performance Excellence, a key partner of BPEP comprising a network of regional and state-level Baldrige-based award programs that offer assistance to business, nonprofit, education, and health care organizations in all areas of the United States. 

Like other Alliance programs, COE offers annual award-related evaluations, in its case based on its community-adapted Baldrige framework. In fact, the nonprofit is currently recruiting reviewers for its new Community Assessment and Recognition Panel. It seeks “individuals from all sectors and backgrounds who are dedicated to enhancing community outcomes,” offering them the opportunity to “delve into the interconnected systems that shape communities, gaining valuable insights for your career growth while aiding communities in achieving higher levels of performance.” Those interested can learn more by reading about the reviewer role before applying online

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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