Category Archives: Blog

Introduction to Community Strategic Planning

By Stephanie Norling, Director, Communities of Excellence 2026

This past Tuesday we kicked off the first online Learning Collaborative session of 2018 with an “Introduction to Community Strategic Planning”.  This was the first time that all ten of our communities were together for an online session and COE 2026’s first opportunity to formally introduce Category Two of the Communities of Excellence Framework to our participants.

A key difference between Category Two-Strategy in the Baldrige framework and Category Two in the Communities of Excellence Framework is the addition of Community.  Every community has a system, whether it’s a good one or not.  In Category Two, Community Strategy, we are talking about planning in the context of the overall system; how you move a community from its current state to its desired future state (Vision).  Category Two helps your community to identify and allocate community resources and align your community offerings with its mission, and its action plans with its strategy.  Simply put, this journey is very much about identifying your community’s current state and then improving it.

In the session we heard presentations from two of our communities on their strategic planning processes:  Kanawha County, West Virginia and San Diego South Region.  In Kanawha County, they use a systematic, repeatable  process to identify key health issues in the community, incorporate data from multiple sources and then, at a community forum every three years, vote on the three issues that they will focus on using a scoring process of a number of factors.  In San Diego’ South Region they use a five step planning process that starts with reviewing their current state including data from the region, conducting environmental scans of their partner organizations, and then defining their areas of focus and goals.

One important recognition that came out of this session for me regards the diversity of challenges, resources, backbone organizations and Baldrige experience that we have with our ten communities.  Some of our communities function in a much more complex system or have more resources available to them than others.  One of the challenges of COE 2026 will be to learn how most effectively to teach our process to these differing communities no matter where they are in their journey.  It a challenge that the faculty and I recognize and must learn to address in order to fully represent the broad diversity of communities across this country.  This is a learning collaborative – we are learning from our communities, as they learn from us.  We need everyone’s help to make this the best it can be and we welcome your thoughts along the way as we learn to tackle these complex issues.


Five Communities Recognized for their Commitment to Community Performance Excellence

Tempe, Arizona – On October 27, five communities received the first-ever recognition for their commitment to the health and wellbeing of residents and pursuit of community performance excellence.  The “Commitment to Community Excellence” Certificates were presented by Communities of Excellence 2026, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the performance of American communities during a luncheon at the 2017 National Baldrige Fall Conference. 

The five communities are Brookfield/Marceline, Missouri; Kanawha County, West Virginia; Maryville, Missouri; San Diego County's South Region, California; and West Kendall, Florida.

In September, these five communities submitted their Baldrige-based Community Profile, an example of an improvement they've made as a result of their Process Improvement System, and the key results they intend to track on their Communities of Excellence journey.  A volunteer team of reviewers then provided an assessment of the Profiles, including highlights and considerations to help the communities better serve their residents and continue their community performance excellence journeys.

“We cannot overstate the significance of the contribution these five communities are making to help launch this new approach to improving the lives of residents throughout our country, “said Lowell Kruse, Chair of Communities of Excellence 2026.   “We know that children are educated, jobs are created, health improves, etc. all at the community level. Helping communities improve their performance is ultimately the best way to improve America. We are proud of them and thank them for the willingness to help pave the way for others who will be involved in this important work in the years ahead.”

The criteria for recognition were developed in partnership with the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program.  In parallel with Baldrige, the purpose of Communities of Excellence 2026 and the Recognition Program is threefold:

1.   To develop a nationally recognized standard of community performance excellence;

2.   To establish role models of that standard through the Recognition Program; and

3.   To encourage continuous improvement through sharing of best practices and provision of feedback to communities on their performance excellence journey that will lead to better outcomes for the residents they serve.

“The entire Baldrige community is excited by the progress being made by these communities to achieve ever-higher levels of performance and improved quality of life for their residents," said Robert Fangmeyer, Director of the Baldrige Performance Excellence Program.  "Seeing their enthusiasm and excitement reminds us all of the transformational power of the Baldrige Excellence Framework and we look forward to continuing our partnership with COE2026 to spread this effort across the nation."

Visit our website for more information about the five communities

Contact: Stephanie Norling

858-342-8185 or

About Communities of Excellence 2026

Communities of Excellence 2026’s mission is to improve the quality of life for our nation’s residents by assisting communities in implementing the Baldrige-based Communities of Excellence framework. 

COE 2026 Kicks Off its National Learning Collaborative

By COE 2026 Director Stephanie Norling

Last Thursday and Friday 43 attendees met in Tempe, Arizona to kick off the full yearlong National Learning Collaborative. As you may recall, we began back in May with five communities.  These five communities worked with us for four months on a series of learning modules designed to help the communities understand the Baldrige- based principles of community performance excellence and to develop their Community Profiles.

In October five more communities joined our Collaborative and together they all met for the first time in Tempe for a full two days of learning, networking and inspiring conversation.  From now until next September these ten communities will meet bi-monthly for regular online sessions.There is too much information to share in one blog post, so please follow us over the next few weeks as I try to summarize the experiences we had. But until then, here are some of the highlights:

COE 2026 Chair and Co-Founder Lowell Kruse summarizing his experience "This [conference] has been 10 times what we expected - your enthusiasm, your humor…Now you have to own this in your own communities. You have to own it personally…We need your help to do this. This needs to go across the country!”

Baldrige Foundation President Al Faber speaking to our group Thursday afternoon: “You are going to be the spark that lights a fire across the country.”

Day two of the conference, held in coordination with the Baldrige Fall Conference, our panel of community leaders talk about their experience adopting the Communities of Excellence Framework. 

Above from left to right:  Stephanie Norling, Darrell Gardner (Brookfield/Marceline, MO), Elena Quintanar (San Diego South Region, CA), Josh McKim (Maryville, MO), Brenda Grant (Kanawha County, WV) and Michelle Mejia (West Kendall, FL).

Also on day two, representatives from our first five communities receive their Commitment to Community Excellence Recognition for successfully completed and submitting their Community Profiles.  A huge thank you to the Baldrige Program, Baldrige Foundation and Alliance for Performance Excellence for making this happen!

Above from left to right: 

First row:  Lowell Kruse (COE 2026 Chair), Elena Quintanar (San Diego South Region, CA), Valerie Brew (San Diego South Region, CA), Brenda Grant (Kanawha County, WV) Margaret Sotham (West Kendall, FL), Jason Bell (West Kendall, FL), Ximena Lopez (West Kendall, FL), Darrell Gardner (Brookfield/Marceline, MO), Bob Fangmeyer (Baldrige Program Director)

Second row:  Manuel Castaneda (San Diego South Region, CA), Judy Crabtree (Kanawha County, WV), Michelle Mejia (West Kendall, FL), Karen Vassell (West Kendall, FL), Rosalina Butao (West Kendall, FL), Donell Robidoux (Maryville, MO), Josh McKim (Maryville, MO), Al Faber (Baldrige Foundation President)

Third row:  Liz Menzer (Alliance for Performanc Excellence), Stephanie Norling (COE 2026 Director)




Meet our Newest Cohort of Communities

Meet our newest cohort of communities!

On October 3rd, Communities of Excellence 2026 kicked off its yearlong National Learning Collaborative with the addition of five new communities. 

You may recall that we had five communities working with us over the past five months to help us test and improve our Learning Collaborative Curriculum before our full launch.  These five communities:  Brookfield/Marceline, Missouri (now the Three Sixty-Five Community Alliance), Kanawha County, West Virginia, Maryville, Missouri, San Diego South Region, California and West Kendall, Florida all submitted their first level application for community recognition called the Commitment to Community Excellence.  Right now our teams of expert reviewers are reading their submissions and providing detailed feedback reports to help the communities accelerate their communities of excellence efforts.

Our five new communities are: 

  1. Albany/Bethany, Missouri
  2. The cities of Excelsior Springs, Gladstone and Smithville in Clay County, Missouri
  3. The Greater Lehigh Valley in Pennsylvania and New Jersey
  4. Kings County, California
  5. Toledo, Ohio

Over the next year all ten of these communities will work together on their Communities of Excellence journeys.  In two weeks representatives from all ten communities will be meeting in Tempe, Arizona during the Baldrige Fall Conference on October 26th and 27th.  If you will be attending that conference please look us up and introduce yourselves!  It’s going to be an exciting year.

San Diego County’s South Region Community: Moving from Great to Excellent

Located within the County of San Diego in the State of California, bound by the United States-Mexico border and the Pacific Ocean, you will find the San Diego South Region community that is vibrant, family-oriented, diverse and binational.  The Live Well San Diego South Region Leadership Team (LWSD SRLT) serves approximately half a million residents that are ethnically and socioeconomically diverse.   While the County of San Diego, Health & Human Services Agency (HHSA) functions as the backbone organization for the LWSD SRLT, shared leadership is a strong core competency that exists within the team.  Our leadership team is a collaborative group of organizational leaders who represent a variety of sectors within the San Diego South Region community including school districts, City and County government, non-profit community based organizations, law enforcement, hospitals, clinics, and businesses that work together to build a community that is healthy, safe and thriving.

In alignment with the Live Well San Diego vision, the LWSD SRLT’s vision is Healthy, Safe and Thriving Communities and its values include collaboration and commitment to the team and the residents of the San Diego South Region. The LWSD SRLT has evolved and expanded its focus from health to include aspects of safety and the overall wellbeing of residents.  The team ties together the collective efforts of community partners.  It is the central point for planning and organizing collaborative efforts, aligning to the mission and developing goals around the Five Areas of Influence (Health, Knowledge, Standard of Living, Community and Social) in order to improve the health, safety and ability of the residents to thrive.

The   LWSD SRLT also empowers residents to serve as leaders in their community.  In fact, three of the LWSD SRLT partners have hosted Resident Leadership Academies (RLA) in which residents learn to lead efforts to improve their communities. The RLA is a curriculum-based program, aimed at engaging residents with a focus on the development of a community improvement project. This is only one example of the work the LWSD SRLT has accomplished. Outcomes for the various strategies and programs the LWSD SRLT contribute to help achieve the vision for a healthy, safe and thriving San Diego South Region.

As a result of the LWSD SRLT’s demonstrated collaboration, South Region was selected as the first pilot community for Communities of Excellence (COE) 2026.  This was an opportunity for the LWSD SRLT to move the dial in its efforts to go from great to excellent in the work they were doing in the community.  Kathie Lembo, President/CEO of South Bay Community Services and co-chair of the LWSD SRLT, states,  “Our journey to this point has been transformational, as the Leadership Team members have contributed their skills, expertise and input throughout the process in ways we haven’t seen before. This shift in the way we do things has brought about new and exciting discoveries this past year.”  

This past year has truly been a year of discovery. The COE framework has allowed the LWSD SRLT to form a clear picture of the San Diego South Region community through the development of the community profile.  The team has been able to identify areas of strength in the community and within the team. The framework has also provided the LWSD SRLT with an opportunity to take a more structured approach in strategic planning, goal development and achieving the voice of the resident.  Through the strategic planning process and development of the Community Profile, it was decided to form a smaller Ad Hoc Group that consists of volunteer representatives from the LWSD SRLT.  The Ad Hoc Group has been instrumental in the development of the Community Profile. 

Barbara Jiménez, Director of Regional Operations for the County of San Diego’s HHSA Central and South Regions and co-chair of the LWSD SRLT states, “It has been inspiring to see the LWSD SLRT in action; to see them embrace the COE framework with a drive and eagerness to grow and develop their collaborative efforts.  At the same time the LWSD SRLT has been able to celebrate their successes and really define and highlight what makes them a successful team.  The LWSD SRLT is engaged and excited to see where this journey towards excellence will continue to take them!”

Sectors AND Generations in Community Leadership

By Communities of Excellence 2026 Chair and Co-Founder Lowell C. Kruse

In virtually all our Communities of Excellence 2026 documents and conversations, we describe the need for collaboration across SECTORS AND GENERATIONS. Sometimes the GENERATIONS piece gets lost in the conversation. The attached video message from Jordan Hasty, a Junior at Brookfield High School, to the group of people (he's one of them) leading the Brookfield/Marceline Pilot in Northwest Missouri is a good reminder about why we always need to include young people in our discussions. Jordan sent his message to the group when he realized he couldn't attend a meeting and wanted to make sure they understood how important it was to him that they adopt and learn how to use the Communities Framework...and all it they think about the future of their community.

It's important for us to remember that the long term growth and prosperity of communities relies on leadership dedicated to performance excellence, to constantly improving and to always thinking about the long term continuity and sustainability of its efforts. Successful communities understand the long term nature of their work particularly as it relates to preparing the next generation of leaders. Let's remember that it takes about 20 years to prepare an entry level young adult and another 15 to 20 years to prepare entry level young leaders for our community. Successful communities will be mindful and purposeful in preparing their children and youth for adulthood and their young adults for leadership in order to assure the highest levels of success over the long term. Students like Jordan Hasty clearly make the case for including our young people in every aspect of growing and strengthening our communities.



Meet Our Communities: Kanawha County

By Judith Crabtree, Executive Director, Kanawha Coalition for Community Health Improvement

Our journey to community health improvement began in 1994 with the formation of the Kanawha Coalition for Community Health Improvement (KCCHI). Ahead of their time, community leaders representing health care, behavioral health, social services, economic development, and local foundations, recognized the value of a collaborative approach to better meet the health needs of residents. KCCHI’s mission is to identify health risks and coordinate resources to measurably improve the health of the people of Kanawha County.

Part of KCCHI’s success and sustainability can be contributed to the level of leadership on its Steering Committee. Membership consists of Chief Executive Officers and top level leaders of member organizations which allows for speedy decisions and quick responses to urgent and emerging needs.

From its inception the Kanawha Coalition has been committed to engaging residents in the process of identifying the top health issues facing our community. KCCHI conducted its first community health assessment (CHA) in 1995, long before IRS regulations for hospitals concerning community needs assessments, public health accreditation requirements for local health departments, and an increased emphasis by charities to fund locally identified issues. KCCHI completed its seventh triennial CHA in March 2017. Through the process of continuous improvement KCCHI’s assessment methodology has been enhanced over the years to be even more inclusive.

KCCHI has traditionally formed volunteer workgroups to address the top 3-4 health issues identified through its CHA. Over the years our efforts have resulted in spin-off collaborative groups that are now addressing some of these identified issues such as childhood obesity and substance abuse. At KCCHI’s Steering Committee retreat in 2015, members revisited our Coalition’s process and purpose. This year, for the first time, KCCHI will not carry out its work through individual issue-based workgroups but will instead convene a stakeholder group who will be charged to develop and implement a comprehensive Kanawha County Health Improvement Plan.

Our Communities of Excellence journey is helping us to more deeply explore our community, its unique challenges, its strengths, how far to reach and who to involve. As we develop our map forward, we are excited to see where our journey takes both our community and our Coalition.


An Update on San Diego County’s South Region

By COE Director Stephanie Norling

As you may know, San Diego County's South Region was one of the first communities to adopt the Communities of Excellence Framework.  Starting in 2015, I've had the pleasure of working closely with their team to both support their implementation efforts and to learn from their experience in order to make improvements to both the Framework and the approach to adopting it.  Their "community" is a region of over 500,000 residents.  This may sound daunting, and there are certainly many challlenges, but one of the reasons that they've been able to make such incredible strides lies in the cohesion and "shared identity" of both the South Region Leadership Team and the Region itself.  

This was most evident in the experience I had yesterday with their team.  The Health and Human Services Agency for the County (the backbone organization) has spent the last year working closely with the South Region Leadership Team to develop their Baldrige-based Community Profile.  Given the size of the Leadership Team (sometimes almost 50 people in attendance), they decided to form a small Ad Hoc Committee to assist them with the Profile.  The Committee would brainstorm responses to the Profile questions and the HHSA staff would compile that information, summarize it and then share it with the Committee at the next meeting for agreement, all the while updating the Leadership Team on their progress. 

A couple months ago, knowing that they would need confirmation from residents (Voice of the Resident), the team put together a questionaire that asked residents whether they agreed with profile of the community as well as asked about their priorties for their community.  Last week they tested that survey at a Health Fair in the region (true to their Performance Improvement System, they are using the PDSA improvement process for these surveys). The responses from the 47 residents that took the survey confirmed the statements in the Profile quite well.  They used Promotoras and South Bay Community Services Resident Leadership Academy graduates to survey residents. 

One story from that experience stood out to me:  One of the Resident Leaders who was helping out told the San Diego South Region team that she had been having some challenges at home and wasn’t sure if she would be able to go to the health fair.  She decided to share the survey with her husband and explain why she felt it was so important.  She told us that he was really excited to see what she was doing and not only was she able to participate but her husband was able to better understand the importance of the work she was doing in the community and wanted to get involved himself. Not only was she able to go the health fair that day, but that she felt like it helped their relationship.

I know all too well the importance of identifying early successes in our communities adopting this framework.  Improving outcomes such as graduation rates or diabetes rates can take many years.  Small impacts such as this story though are starting to happen right away.  I don't often get to see the day to day impact that the Communties of Excellence Framework can have on residents.  I am so grateful to the South Region team for all their hard work, dedication, and ability to take the time to step back and acknowledge such important aspects of their journey.

The Value of Cross-Sector Collaboration

By Kruse Scholar Alum Rob Platou

In 2014 I accepted a job offer that took me from sunny Southern California to rural Southeast Georgia to work at a community hospital that was part of the Mayo Clinic Health System.  After starting my new job, I volunteered to join the local Waycross Rotary Club to help represent the hospital in the community.  From this experience I was able to learn of a cross-sector collaboration between the local school district, the technical college and the local business community.  This collaboration’s aim was to help high school students prepare for higher education and meaningful employment. This naturally occurring collaboration demonstrated the tremendous value that cross-sector initiatives can provide.  It also illustrates how the Communities of Excellence Framework could provide communities across the country with a systematic framework to collaborate on and achieve multiple-shared community goals. 

Waycross is small city in Southeast Georgia about an hour and a half drive from Jacksonville, Florida. The population has steadily declined from 20,944 at its peak in 1960 to 14,053 in 2015.  The medium household income for a family in Waycross is $28,712 which is significantly below US median household income of $51,939.  Six railway lines converge in Waycross and CSX Transportation operates a large railway hub called Rice Yard.  Timber farming is a major industry which supplies several large Biomass plants producing wood pellets used in European Power Plants.  The major educational institutions include Ware County School District, Costal Pines Technical College and South Georgia State College.

Given the community’s unique socio-economic circumstances, the following stakeholders came together and identified their primary needs:

1) Business Community: Need for an educated and trained local workforce

2) Secondary Education: Promote education programs to provide high school students seeking a college degree affordable opportunities to earn transferable college credit while still in high school

3) Community Technical College: Promote educational programs to provide students who do not have the opportunity to go to college, technical training programs that enable graduates join the local workforce quickly with meaningful employment. 

In close collaboration these different community sectors sought to maximize and promote the State of Georgia’s Move On When Ready program (MOWR).  This program allows qualifying high school students to take eligible college courses at the community college for free that also meet high school graduation requirements.  After identifying the workforce training needs of the local business community, Costal Pines Technical College promoted multiple technical training programs accessible to high school students through the MOWR program.  Some of these certificate programs included Timber Farming, Hospitality Services, Welding, and CNA certification. 

The college also provided several options for high school students to attend classes on the college campus or by assigning certified technical college instructors to teach at the high school.  With these programs in place it was feasible for a high school student to be able to complete these training programs while still in high school at no cost to them. Upon high school graduation these student’s could enter the workforce with technical certification and make $38,000 - $41,000 a year which is significant in this community.

This naturally occurring cross-sector collaboration provides significate opportunities for young people in the Waycross community while also meeting the needs of local businesses and educational institutions. This example from Waycross is just one of many examples of cross-sector collaborations that result in the improved vitality of communities.  The Communities of Excellence Framework could provide communities like Waycross the tools to encourage, promote and enable coordinated cross-sector collaborations to solve multiple community problems in a systematic framework.   

Meet our Communities: West Kendall, Florida

By Javier Hernandez-Lichtl, CEO, West Kendall Baptist Hospital

From before West Kendall Baptist Hospital opened, our staff has operated under guiding themes that describe who we are and what we value. As we prepared to open, it was “Building Our Team,” then “Opening Our Doors,” followed by the “Year of the People” and so on. In 2013, in response to our Community Health Needs Assessment, we launched Healthy West Kendall, a community coalition with the vision of creating the healthiest community in Florida. We’ve had many successes, from the 13,000-plus free screenings we’ve provided to the school gardens and walking school bus projects helping kids develop healthy lifestyle habits, to hosting community events that draw more than 10,000 participants each year. Yet, as we entered our sixth year of operation, I knew it was time to “redefine” (our current theme) and look for the next curve, something that would catapult our community to the next level. Then late one night as I reviewed emails, I clicked on a link about Communities of Excellence 2026 and knew immediately I had found what our West Kendall community needed.

To understand our journey here, we have to go back 15 years, when the rapidly growing area now known as West Kendall was a patchwork of neighborhoods without many of the anchoring institutions – businesses, restaurants, government, etc. – that root a community and lend it an identity. Residents here were used to driving many miles east and north to buy groceries, shop for clothes and gifts, or even get a meal in a restaurant that didn’t use plastic utensils. Still, the people who lived here knew they needed a hospital in their community and asked Baptist Health South Florida to be their provider. Fast forward to 2011, when the hospital finally opened. On our first day, we saw 71 people in our emergency department, admitted our first inpatient and delivered our first baby. It was a true testament to the need that existed, and we were proud to be the health system helping to fill that gap. Today West Kendall Baptist serves as physical and metaphorical town center for this sprawling community of nearly 400,000 people that represents 15% of the county population. Our emergency department serves 70,000 and we care for more than 8,700 inpatients; nearly 1,000 babies are born each year inside our walls. But it’s what we do outside our facility that makes me most proud.

Our innovation drivers – teams focused on Arts & Culture, Green & Sustainable, Technology & Health & Wellness – have hosted community events like a technology showcase and roadside clean ups, conducted field trips to see recycling plants and food distribution centers and connected with residents through the arts and wellness activities. Through Healthy West Kendall, we are addressing the social, cultural and environmental factors that shape the health of our residents. These include creating streets and public spaces that support health, building a stronger economic base in our community, making sure all children have a chance to succeed in school and helping new immigrants gain a foothold on the American Dream. Nearly 80% of West Kendall residents are Hispanic/Latino, and more than half speak a language other than English at home. They come from a host of Caribbean, Central and South American countries – Cuba, Colombia, El Salvador, Nicaragua and Puerto Rico – and the unique perceptions and beliefs they bring to the community offers tremendous opportunity and, in some cases, a few challenges.

Driven in part by an influx of immigrants, West Kendall grew by 23% in the decade between 2000 and 2010, adding about 73,000 residents seeking cheaper housing, safer neighborhoods and open space. Nestled between the Everglades on the west and the Florida turnpike on the east, West Kendall has transformed into a heavily populated collection of enclosed housing developments and commercial strip shopping centers, anchored by two institutions of higher education – Florida International University and Miami Dade College, an executive airport and West Kendall Baptist Hospital. West Kendall remains part of unincorporated Miami-Dade County, and the absence of a municipality contributes to a lack of cohesion and sense of place that some residents have sought without success to change.

The Communities of Excellence journey that we have embarked upon will provide a foundation on which to unite our community behind the shared value of belonging – to a place and a community – and identity. Our experience with the Sterling Award has taught us that what gets measured gets done. The raw materials for a world-class community are here, and Communities of Excellence 2026 is our way forward.

Read more about West Kendall here