Posted by Christine Schaefer
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 (PDF profile) 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. 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s Note: Baldrige Program Director Bob Fangmeyer recently accepted an invitation to join the board of directors of Communities of Excellence 2026.