As a nation, we advance the common good most effectively and durably when we work together in a local community to systematically identify, implement, and sustain improvements that work for that community.
The concept of engaging the community in a process to improve community outcomes, such as health, education or economic vitality, is not new. A variety of approaches have been used over the past 25 years, for example Healthy Communities, Collective Impact, and Community Visioning. They rely on broad engagement of community citizens to shape collective action in the community and have added great value to the process over the years.
These approaches are useful and represent an evolution of practices to increase the capacity of communities to collectively work on community issues that must be addressed using a cross-sector approach. In many ways the evolution of these approaches maps to the evolution of quality principles. The early quality initiatives in the 1980s focused on continuous quality improvement (CQI). This approach relied on the application of CQI tools and techniques to study and improve processes. However, the process improvement work being undertaken didn’t always align with the organization’s strategic direction. Success on a given process improvement initiative did not necessarily translate into overall improved organizational performance, and once the CQI project was completed, the improvements often would not stick. Hence, although incremental improvements were made, overall organizational performance excellence was not achieved. To address this problem of an incremental CQI approach, the Baldrige Excellence framework was developed as a systems approach to performance improvement.
The current approach to community collaboration is more like a CQI approach than a Baldrige systems approach. The community comes together in a collaborative effort to address a funding opportunity or an initiative - a ‘project’. Once the project has been completed, the community collaboration that was in place to support the initiative often fades away, and the status quo processes in the community return. If goals and resources across community sectors were never aligned or integrated, then the efforts and results of the community collaboration dissipate once the funding, initiative, or project has ended. Similarly, initiatives such as community leadership development or use of community benchmarking data focus on one aspect of community performance, but without changing other core community systems, it is hard to impact overall community performance.
The Baldrige framework as adapted to the community context by Communities of Excellence 2026 is based on principles that recognize the interrelationships of core processes identified across six categories: 1) integrative cross-sector community leadership; 2) strategic community planning; 3) stakeholder focus; 4) measurement and analysis of key community performance metrics, and sharing this knowledge across the community; 5) people focus; and 6) community process focus. The principles in these six categories need to be aligned to drive community results.
As communities successfully engage in a performance excellence approach, we believe they will advance in their maturity level of aligning community strategic and operational goals for sustained results on the metrics that matter – good jobs, good education, and good health for all citizens.
Sandra Potthoff, PhD
Communities of Excellence 2026