By Christine Schaefer
In preparing to share here how the Baldrige Excellence Framework is being used to support community vitality in a rural region of Missouri, I’ve been thinking of how quintessentially American the Communities of Excellence 2026 (COE 2026) initiative is. In particular, it strikes me that what’s happening in northwest Missouri exemplifies an idealistic, innovation-minded spirit that has been present in American communities for centuries—likely reenergized by the continual infusion of immigrants seeking a better life than what they experienced in their countries of origin. Consider the prescient words of John Winthrop, the 17th-century founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to his Pilgrim community: “We must consider that we shall be a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people upon us.”
With a similarly optimistic vision and drive to build a new kind of structure to advance residents’ quality of life, leaders of the northwest Missouri pilot group supported by COE 2026 are cultivating what they call “Regional Vitality.” They are using a community-adapted version of the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence (see the draft framework on the COE 2026 website) as a basis for cross-sector, collaborative planning. The collective aim is to boost business investment and development in their region while simultaneously improving the health and education outcomes that are often connected to a robust economy.
I can’t help expressing here how deeply this Communities of Excellence 2026 initiative resonates with me. Perhaps this is because I spent most of my youth enjoying the benefits of living in a beautiful planned community outside Washington, D.C. Founded in the early 1960s by the late Robert E. Simon, Jr., Reston, Virginia, was known in my childhood for the muscular preservation by its community association of natural habitats, among other foundational values. The lush, serene woods surrounding the community’s vast network of walking trails encouraged outdoor recreation by residents, promoting wellness.
I’m still optimistic about how American communities can improve the quality of life for residents when representatives of local organizations across sectors come together to define or reaffirm a shared vision and set of values—and, through joint planning, pursue common goals for economic, educational, health, and other indicators of a good life. When I consider the potential of COE 2026 pilot sites to deliver on their promise, I also imagine the levels of excellence that the “city on a hill” in which I was raised could have reached (and might still) by embracing the Baldrige framework as a strong organizational foundation.
In a recent blog on the COE 2026 website, Steve Wenger and Stephanie Norling share highlights of an early August meeting in Brookfield, Missouri, that drew together leaders and other stakeholders involved in the regional COE effort. As Wenger and Norling state in their update, during the meeting, Max Summers, chair of the Regional Vitality Committee of the Community Foundation of Northwest Missouri, described the plan to “build a baseline of data to understand the trade region and to identify best opportunities to grow traded activity from within the community.”
Also at the Brookfield meeting, Pat Curry of the University of Missouri Extension’s ExCEED program presented characteristics of and research-based recommendations for promoting “resilient communities” and reviewed local economic data and challenges. For example, Missouri ranked 27th in the Measure of America 2015 Opportunity Index, which Curry described as “secondary data indicators for economy, education, and community.” Impressed with the COE collaborative effort, Terry Maglich, a business development manager in Missouri’s Department of Economic Development, stated that it “could be a template to solve some of the rural problems that we all are encountering, not only in our state but others as well.”
“Lots of things have been looked at, but this is the first that appears to be sustainable,” said Maglich. “It’s not going to happen overnight, but this is the right way to go about creating opportunity for our rural communities.”