America faces great challenges as we approach the year 2026, the 250th anniversary of our nation’s founding. Communities across our country have struggled to confront systemic problems such as educational disparities, deteriorating public health, and inequities in economic opportunity and quality of life. Moreover, efforts to address these and other critical issues are often carried out in silos, without a solid, systematic framework for cross-sector collaboration among key players and stakeholders and sustained performance excellence in key community outcomes.
PEN hosted a panel discussion a few weeks ago that featured four communities who are using the Baldrige-based Communities of Excellence Framework to address their challenges and improve their results. The nonprofit Communities of Excellence 2026 was founded nearly 10 years ago with the Foundation Statement that reads as follows:
For America to sustain its vitality, promote opportunity, and create a more equitable society during its second 250 years of existence, we must improve the performance of communities and the people who lead and live in them.
That’s quite a powerful purpose statement! And clearly the work is not a simple overnight project or an initiative that you can start and stop, but it’s a long-term journey that every American community should consider. Last month, Congress passed – and President Biden signed into law – authorization for “communities” to be eligible to apply for and receive recognition for the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. After federal budget appropriation, communities can start applying for the Baldrige National Award.
Today, there are 32 US communities on the journey to excellence using the COE Framework. The four in PEN’s panel were Ames, Iowa; Central Minnesota (around the St. Cloud area); Excelsior Springs, Missouri; and San Diego County, California. Here are some of their most powerful insights:
- Any community of any size can improve performance.
- Once you realize that communities are systems, it impacts how you interact with community leaders and organizations, how you pull in community partners, how you analyze data and make decisions, to how you solve problems and mobilize resources.
- Using a framework like COE makes community improvement efforts more deliberate, more systematic.
- The COE framework helped us navigate the challenges of the pandemic. Today, I think we’re significantly stronger, continuing to explore how this systems approach can make us a better community.
- No single organization has all the solutions to the challenges a community faces – it takes all organizations, each of which has different views of the system.
- Using a Framework like COE helps us be more deliberate in our work, engage more people, and measure progress.
- Real community improvement requires more than just a good idea or a good project – it requires a plan, measurement, and systematic collaboration across all stakeholders in the community.
- To fully address challenges – and to fully achieve and sustain solid outcomes – different sectors need to get involved. Population health, for example, is not the responsibility only of the hospital, but the school system, businesses, other nonprofits, governmental agencies, and families and individuals themselves. This Framework builds consensus, alignment, and coordination of resources in complex communities.
- Successful community collaboration efforts require a “backbone organization” – a neutral, trusted entity who can marshal and coordinate resources and guide the effort.
- Those involved in a community improvement effort need to represent key stakeholders in the broader community itself. There is no CEO in a community, but dozens – maybe hundreds of leaders, each with different perspectives, priorities, and agendas. COE efforts need to honor all of those perspectives and promote broad engagement.
- All communities have assets, core competencies, and unique characteristics that make it what it is. Being excellent requires understanding and leveraging those strengths.
- Community improvement efforts come down to having strong relationships and trust, but also having a Framework and leadership system to promote more intentional, data-based decisions.
- In community improvement efforts, just like in organizational improvement efforts, communities need to develop systematic processes; deploy those processes where it makes sense to in the community; and measure, evaluate, and improve those processes to keep them current with changing community priorities and needs.
- In communities, it’s a delicate balance between collaboration and competition. Those communities who are more skilled at cooperation will enjoy better results.
- Community excellence requires patience, a plan and process, and trust.
Great insights from a great set of communities!
As the country approaches its 250th birthday, Americans need to set a collective goal of not just making it to 2026, but improving our nation’s strength for many generations, many centuries to come. Much of that work needs to happen at a grass roots level – within the communities in which we all live, work, and play. As Communities of Excellence 2026 is beginning to show, the same improvement tools that have been proven to impact outcomes within organizations can be used to improve community outcomes across organizations.
In that light, I close this month’s column with a call to action. Imagine a time when leaders within a community – official leaders (those elected or appointed to their formal positions), as well as the many informal community leaders – work together to set community vision; listen to community stakeholders to better understand community assets and needs; (re)allocate resources to address community issues or advance community initiatives; use community scorecards to monitor progress of those initiatives and the outcomes they intend to impact; and engage, mobilize, and align people resources – workers, volunteers, and citizenry – on the initiatives that will make a difference in a given community. That’s how high performing organizations succeed; we believe that’s how high performing communities will also succeed.
Communities of Excellence 2026 envisions using a validated improvement framework – the Baldrige Performance Excellence Framework – to improve health status, educational attainment, economic vitality, and other key community outcomes by focusing on improving overall community performance in addition to individual components within communities. If it’s worked successfully for 35 years to improve and sustain organizational outcomes, why wouldn’t it work to improve community outcomes?
I have been a practitioner of the Baldrige Framework for more than 25 years, as an examiner at both the state and national levels, as a judge for several Baldrige-based award programs (such as American Health Care Association and the Veterans Administration’s Carey Award), as president of the Performance Excellence Network (the regional Baldrige-based program serving Minnesota and the Dakotas), and a leader of the Alliance for Performance Excellence (the national consortium of state/regional Baldrige-based programs). In these roles, I have seen the impact Baldrige has had on improving performance of American businesses, hospitals, schools, nonprofits, and governmental agencies. It improves outcomes, aligns activities, and optimizes resources. I am convinced that the Communities of Excellence 2026 vision will help community leaders – both formal and informal – better allocate resources, solve problems, and address some of the pervasive challenges we face as a nation.
I am honored to serve on the Communities of Excellence 2026 board, because I believe in the potential of this vision. And I am honored to help execute Communities of Excellence 2026, because I believe this country needs bold, innovative solutions to address our complex problems.
In many ways, America is at a crossroads. We are still the best nation on earth, but we are now facing increasing challenges and vexing problems that may threaten our ability to stay on top. I look forward to working with Communities of Excellence 2026 to achieve and sustain the highest level of performance for our communities and build a lasting culture where passion for community excellence is the norm in our country. I invite you to join the cause and explore how this powerful Framework could help your community! After all, the base of the word community is “unity” – we all need to come together with more collaborative problem solving, more cooperative improvement efforts.
For a recording of the panel discussion, visit here. And for more on Communities of Excellence 2026, visit here or contact PEN directly.
What other insights/tips do you have regarding community improvement? Participate in a discussion on this topic: visit our LinkedIn group to post a comment. And follow me on Twitter @LassiterBrian!
Stay healthy and never stop improving!
Brian S. Lassiter
President, Performance Excellence Network
A Catalyst for Success Since 1987! Photo credit financetwitter.com, bigthink.com