Skip to Content

Community Well-Being

Belonging Matters

What does it mean to flourish? How do we measure individual and community well-being? And how can we better engage the community to solve some of our biggest challenges?

To answer these questions, The Columbus Foundation launched its work around well-being focused on finding ways to help community members reach their full potential, live well, and experience a sense of meaning and purpose.

Since 2019, The Columbus Foundation has led design “sprints”—targeted efforts of one to eight weeks—to help identify and address problems facing central Ohio residents. These sprints have been a way to connect leaders of schools, government agencies, and nonprofit organizations with those who are experiencing the challenges firsthand, as a way to gain greater insight into their lived experiences and generate collaborative ideas to improve well-being.

To measure well-being, The Columbus Foundation built on a partnership with Harvard University’s Human Flourishing Program and CHRR at The Ohio State University. Through this work, and with additional collaborators including Stanford University’s, Heather Tsavaris, Principal Consultant, Community Well-Being: Design & Impact at The Columbus Foundation, has led a team of experts as they collaborate with community members known as “community designers,” using human-centered design as a tool to understand and solve community challenges. Community designers are those individuals most proximate to the problem, many of whom are actually experiencing it. For example, for a project about providing support to young people who are experiencing homelessness, The Columbus Foundation partnered with young people who recently experienced homelessness.

Tsavaris developed and has been driving this work at The Columbus Foundation since the effort’s inception. She leads community well-being measurement and spearheads efforts to promote flourishing. Tsavaris has worked across sectors—including the federal government, the private sector, and the philanthropic sector—to develop and implement innovative and award-winning solutions to some of the world’s most difficult challenges.

We recently asked Tsavaris to share more about the evolution of this work at The Columbus Foundation.

What is human-centered design?

According to Stanford University’s, a partner in our work on well-being, “Human-centered design is a process, mindset, and approach to identify meaningful challenges and creatively solve complex problems. It guides practitioners to understand and respond to the needs of specific people, question assumptions and reframe problems, and experiment to advance their solutions.”

Why is it an important tool when looking at challenges in a community?

Using human-centered design means going to our neighbors, learning from them, and understanding what challenges they are experiencing firsthand. When our neighbors’ experiences are centered in this way, we understand what is happening differently. When we equitably partner with them, we are able to co-create the solutions that would be most impactful.

What are some of the areas you’ve created design sprints around, and why were those selected?

Our projects have ranged from digital equity and youth well-being to emergency rental assistance and increasing belonging in places like museums throughout our community. We embark on projects in one of two ways: first, community partners come to us because they are interested in using this approach to better understand an issue or to build their own capacity to work in this way; or second, there is a significant community challenge that we think this approach could yield an impactful understanding of. For all of the issues we work on, we want to be sure that working in this way will be additive and yield innovative solutions that could make life tangibly better for our neighbors.

How do you think The Columbus Foundation’s efforts in this area will help move the community forward?

Seeing The Columbus Foundation embrace this approach of partnering deeply and equitably with our neighbors and nonprofits to get to a different understanding and innovative solutions has been inspiring and immensely rewarding. When an organization like The Columbus Foundation says to a young person who has experienced homelessness, “We need your help to solve a hard problem in our community,” it hopefully changes the game. Our community, like so many, has hard challenges. As we think about the future, it seems to me that the way to get to equitable wellbeing for all of us is to work deeply together.

How has this work evolved?

This work began in earnest in 2019. We started with three demonstration projects to see if we could co-design with members of our community to improve their well-being. We worked on improving belonging in Hilliard City Schools, improving belonging for young people at Central Community House, and improving belonging for people when they returned to Franklin County from Marion Correctional Institute. That early work proved that we could co-design with residents, we could understand problems they were experiencing more deeply, and we could co-create more innovative/ relevant solutions.

In 2020, we began doing this work virtually and were able to recruit top equity designers from around the country to join us. They were really interested in what we were trying in Columbus and in our commitment to equity and our residents. Since 2020, we have refined our practice. Importantly, we have continuously asked our co-designers—our community designers—to help us make our approach better and more equitable. We also now spend more time working with nonprofits and community partners before bringing in community designers, training them on the art of co-design and equitably partnering with residents. We continuously apply design principles to our own work, iterating as we do each project and continue to build our team.

What is one thing that has surprised you so far?

The power in asking someone to participate; the magic that happens when you invite someone who is typically NEVER asked their opinion to not only weigh in, but also to help co-create solutions that will really work; and finally, this axiom that we hear every time we do a project, no matter the topic—people don’t always want to be helped, they want to be helpers, too.

Everyone has experiences, gifts, or ways that they can contribute to help solve problems for other people. People need to be asked to contribute and be respected deeply when they do. Maybe the surprising part is how easy it is to ask respectfully and listen—and the immense impact it can make on all of us when we do.

Click here to learn more about Designing for Community Well-Being at The Columbus Foundation.