person walking on line between mountains

Risk, Leadership, and Building a Better Future


Russell Johnson, President and CEO

It will take innovation, bold leadership, and risk taking to build back a better system that truly works for everyone.

As we edge closer to the one-year anniversary of the pandemic, I’ve been reflecting on the ways that our social safety net system is being challenged to not just return to normal, but to lead a paradigm shift in how we conceptualize a healthy community. Our country’s “normal” includes systemic underinvestment in Black and Brown communities, resulting in clear health, economic, educational, and other disparities. “Normal” means that hundreds of Montgomery County residents are homeless every year, thousands are food insecure, and recent immigrants are challenged to find services in their own language, among a multitude of other challenges.

We don’t need to go back to that reality- we need transformation to a new society where every resident has real opportunity to thrive and live a healthy life.

Last month, HealthSpark announced twelve new grant projects that have the potential to build that new future through our Innovation Lab grant program. The Innovation Lab provides seed capital for nonprofit organizations to consider how they can change how the social safety net functions so it is more equitable, accessible, and effective.

Some of our grantees are trying to network with one another after recognizing they often serve the same people at different times, or at least serve people with similar needs and experiences. These networking efforts are attempting to build a better understanding of how people’s needs manifest themselves, what resources and service delivery strategies can be redesigned to improve service access and outcomes.  Other grantees are exploring their business relationships with each other – sort of a supply and value chain assessment to identify ways to leverage their talents and resources without duplicating efforts that sometimes can be quite costly and ineffective.  These grantees seek to align their infrastructures (people, place, capital, relationships) to support a more robust and financial sustainable system. 

The Innovation Lab is also working with providers serving immigrant communities. I am building awareness that different customs, faiths, languages, nationalities, and more influence how individuals engage in the safety net system.  For many, particularly recent immigrants, the system lacks the cultural and linguistic competencies necessary to serve them effectively. Our grantee partners who specialize in services to immigrant communities, many first and second generation leaders themselves, are helping us understand that translation is just one step in transforming access to services. Often the missing elements that hinder access and use of needed services are related to a lack of cultural awareness and how lived experiences are barriers to building trusting and helpful relationships. Building an inclusive safety net system that can meet the needs of everyone requires taking a hard look at how ingrained policies and practices inhibit access and centering the experience of residents as we redesign those policies.

As we plan our solicitation for the 4th round of Innovation Lab projects in the coming weeks, HealthSpark hopes to see applications that are transformational to our system and intentional in seeking new ways to financially strengthen the organizational applicants.  We are encouraging and hopeful to see substantive evidence of emerging partnerships that have a vision for improving access and quality of services, especially in low-income neighborhoods that exist in Norristown, Pottstown, Lansdale, Ardmore, Willow Grove, Cheltenham and other Montgomery County neighborhoods.  We are encouraging applicants to explore projects that address systemic racism, perhaps in direct partnership with grassroots groups most impacted by past practices that deny or interfere with opportunities to thrive.  We encourage nonprofits specifically serving Black and Brown residents to apply or partner with others. 

It will take innovation, bold leadership, and risk taking to build back a better system that truly works for everyone. We hope the Innovation Lab Grant Program can continue to provide the opportunity to support ideas and projects that will envision what a new normal can truly look like- and to us, the bolder, the better.