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Communities of Excellence 2026 Blogs

National Learning Collaborative for Communities is Expanding

May 12, 2021 | 4 minute read

The flagship program of Communities of Excellence 2026, the National Learning Collaborative, has grown over the past few years as much as the leaders spread in participating communities throughout the country. The organization will celebrate the completion of four years of supporting communities to adopt their Baldrige-based framework this Fall when the second cohort, the Class of 2021, transitions to the alumni group. Six other community groups will form Cohort Five entering the program at the same time. Expanding beyond the three-year model of the National Learning Collaborative, leaders interested in discovering COE 2026’s unique approach and critical community improvement concepts are now also being given the opportunity to learn in new introductory six-session courses and one-time special sessions on specific topics. All programs except for the organization’s annual conference are held virtually to keep the learning experiences as convenient as possible for participants involved across the country’s time zones.

The founding board members and faculty and Stephanie Norling, COE 2026’s executive director, have created a valuable systems approach for continuous improvement. They have developed and piloted an evolving curriculum along with leaders from two dozen communities representing a combined population of more than 10 million people from coast to coast. The program honors the differences and similarities of communities compared to other entities within Baldrige’s six current categories. There are significant differences that have made the effort a worthwhile endeavor. The unique foundational characteristic is that community collaboration efforts do not have a formal hierarchy of accountability and command. Instead, leaders share responsibilities through various roles in multiple sectors representing a wide range of perspectives.

A recent survey respondent from the alumni group said, “I can feel the importance of aligning and bringing in all of the community to the decision table as we grow. Plus, it is really fun to meet so many different people who are leaders in my community.”

Some of these multi-sector efforts are supported by one backbone organization’s sponsorship and coordination, while others are networks of support with many entities pitching in time, talent, finances, and other needed resources. All of them have a key individual or small group serving as their community excellence group’s point of contact and coordinator. While leadership and the responsibilities of the work are distributed as much as possible among the people involved, there is always a hub that supports the effort’s interconnected network in the background with communications, data, technical assistance, and more as servant leaders, discussion facilitators, and coaches. There are no chiefs in collaboration. Familiar titles of status and positional authority that leaders hold in their own organizations are set aside when they come together on behalf of the community’s greater good.

Community collaboration requires thinking and acting with a systems perspective and a servant’s heart to address the complex challenges and opportunities of improving the quality of life for all community members. Leaders involved in these efforts benefit from having a guiding framework that helps them first understand their community situation or story, including many diverse perspectives in envisioning a new and improved story; and, take action together to make their strategic plans a reality. It is an approach that helps people see, believe, and do.

One of the elements that really sets the COE Framework apart from the many other public and private investments made to help communities over the past couple of decades is the focus on sustainability. The guiding questions focus collaborative leaders on documenting their efforts in a way that motivates them to keep an eye on the big picture. They help to identify and address the key opportunities for improvement and celebrate the progress of wins along their journey. It supports a continuous cycle of considering and engaging all of the community’s residents and other customers/stakeholders instead of focusing only on stand-alone or short-term projects and the siloed agendas of specific sectors and individuals.

Over the past four years, additional faculty members working in communities have been welcomed to the team bringing the practical application experience needed to this groundbreaking program. Mentors have been recruited for each participating community to serve as coaches, objective sounding boards, and sources of encouragement throughout the process of adopting the framework. The framework and approach to covering its elements in the curriculum have also been updated several times. The organization has modeled the way for others by listening and learning from participant feedback compiled each year. The most recent program evaluation revealed:

  • 100% of the participants either strongly agreed or agreed that COE 2026’s National Learning Collaborative’s content is relevant to their community collaboration work. One survey respondent said, “It brought us together.”
  • Nearly all indicated that new knowledge is being learned throughout the experience.
  • Applying the learning takes time, yet many participants state that they are seeing the benefits of systems-thinking and the framework’s values in their daily lives as well as their community interactions.
  • 93% said the framework is a useful approach to support continuous improvement for community collaboration efforts – a benefit they haven’t experienced in applying other models –  listing the major benefits as:
  • Helping community excellence groups develop a common language across different sectors,
  • Fostering cross-sector collaboration by “shaping the discussions without the need for ‘control’” by any one entity or individual;
  • Building a systems approach that focuses efforts on achieving outcomes beyond just planning for them.

A summary of what the faculty feels participants can accomplish as they apply the systems leadership principles of the COE Framework over time include:

  • Higher rates of community engagement,
  • Measurable outcomes across many sectors,
  • Ability to anticipate issues in advance,
  • Build resiliency and become less reactive and more proactive,
  • Make better decisions and manage by fact, and
  • Improve communication that builds stronger and more trusting relationships critical to success.

One question often comes up when visiting with leaders considering participation in the collaborative is whether experience in applying Baldrige principles is a prerequisite. “It is not,” said Norling. “At least half or more of our participants have never used the Baldrige framework in their organizations. We have learned that a group progresses further and faster when they have certain readiness characteristics such as a willingness to learn and at least some connections to build knowledge across several sectors such as health care, business/economic development, education, and other quality of life endeavors. The work requires time and energy, so people do have to want to show up for their own benefit and the benefit of their community.”

COE 2026 may have the most inclusive and comprehensive ongoing approach to revitalizing America’s communities and their leaders. Time will tell as the organization expands and diversifies its offerings to meet the needs of different learners in varying community situations. However, the organization already has the proven Baldrige Performance Excellence model at its core. A growing number of community excellence group leaders clearly feel the Communities of Excellence Framework and the National Learning Collaborative experience are valuable in helping them organize and empower their entire communities to improve their collective quality of life. It is assisting leaders to address their most pressing community challenges.

Information for this post includes the findings of an independent performance evaluation by JUPER Communications, LLC in Spring 2021 of Communities of Excellence 2026’s framework and learning programs based on surveys, interviews, and observations of six alumni communities, their mentors, and faculty members.