By Christine Schaefer
You may recall reading here before about Communities of Excellence 2026 (COE 2026).
Two years ago, we shared the big aims of this small nonprofit organization. The COE2026 story began when two former executives of Baldrige Award-winning organizations were discussing challenges faced by U.S. communities today. Together, Lowell Kruse (who led Heartland Health in 2009 when it received a Baldrige Award) and Richard Norling (who led Premier Inc. when it received a Baldrige Award in 2006) envisioned the Baldrige Excellence Framework becoming an innovative basis for American communities to improve education, health care, and economic outcomes through cross-sector collaboration.
Last March, we profiled the San Diego (CA) pilot site for COE2026, with an interview of the county agency leader who’s shepherding the collaborative effort as part of the “Live Well San Diego” campaign to improve population health and welfare. In August, we described that San Diego agency’s use of the COE-adapted version of the Organizational Profile (which is the preface for the Criteria for Performance Excellence within the Baldrige Excellence Framework).
Recently, we asked COE2026 Director Stephanie Norling for the latest news on her work, which is supported by the Baldrige Program, in part through BPEP Director Bob Fangmeyer’s participation on the organization’s advisory board.
Norling shared that the Northwest Missouri pilot organization “has contracted … to do an in-depth data analysis of the 18-county region” to better understand the economic challenges facing the region. “The community foundation that serves as the backbone organization is working very hard to secure the funds needed to successfully support an ‘all-in’ approach across the region,” she said.
For the San Diego County pilot, Norling described highlights of a January meeting of a regional leadership team for the Live Well campaign. At the start, a presentation of regional demographic changes from 2010 and 2015 community survey data allowed the leadership team to gain a better understanding of the community, according to Norling.
“Those data and more resulted in a vibrant conversation among the various community leaders about where as a community the team should be diving deeper and what additional formal or informal leaders should be represented (e.g., senior citizen residential facilities, given the significant increase in seniors in the region),” said Norling. “That started the conversation about developing shared community goals.”
The next time the San Diego regional leadership team meets, said Norling, the represented organizations will report back on their internal priorities, the community’s priorities, key customers, and populations groups they target. “Each group will then present this information to the team to help develop a set of shared community priorities,” she said.
National Sharing in Baltimore
Norling is looking forward to sharing information about COE2026 in early April with attendees at the Baldrige Program’s Annual Quest for Excellence® Conference, where she will participate in a panel session.
Norling will be joined by Anabel Poole, chief of agency operations for the County of San Diego’s Health and Human Services Agency (HHSA). Poole oversees HHSA’s organizational Baldrige journey and supports the Communities of Excellence journey within the county’s South Region. In that position, Poole also supports and oversees the process of spreading the pilot approach to the other five regions of her county.
“Participants at this session will get a progress update on COE 2026, with a focus on the San Diego County pilot,” said Norling. “We plan to outline the process they used to adopt the COE framework, why they selected to do it, and why they selected the particular region they did to start.”
Poole will share “what went well along the way, what course corrections needed to be taken, and what elements or preconditions proved to be essential to begin the journey,” she said. She will also share the “early insights and ‘a-ha’ moments that developed as a result of undergoing this journey, with a specific emphasis on how organizations involved in the COE journey can gain value for their internal operations by being a part of the effort.”
Key Benefits of the Baldrige Framework
How can using the COE-adapted Baldrige framework help a community? Following are five benefits Norling described:
- Using the data and the Community Profile to know your community will help individuals working with the community to be more effective in how they develop and target [improvements] as well as to identify gaps in service where they are needed.
- Focusing on the customer (the resident) will result in stronger engagement and insights by those who need services the most.
- A diverse and well-functioning leadership team will help your community be able to respond more quickly to changes in your environment, political situation, natural disasters, or other challenges.
- Understanding your community’s strengths and assets can help you focus on how to best entice new residents to the region or attract new businesses.
- Articulating and agreeing on your shared community goals as well as understanding how each organization can contribute to meeting those goals will increase your ability to move the needle on some of your community’s key challenges.
Asked how an interested community can move forward with the COE2026 approach, Norling suggested, “Join the COE2026 Learning Collaborative starting in April!”
“Beyond that,” said Norling, a community will “need (1) reliable data to understand your community; (2) the support of a strong leader or backbone organization that understands the Baldrige framework and its value; and (3) a commitment to create a leadership team that is representative of the key sectors, resident groups, and generations in your community.”
To attend the COE2026 informational session in April, register now for the 29th Annual Quest for Excellence Conference, which will feature the 2016 Baldrige Award recipients and many more national role models sharing their best practices.