Leadership Hacks for Harm Reductionists

Organizational Culture for Effective Leadership

Organizational culture can positively or negatively impact any individual leader’s capacity to effectively lead, no matter their personal skill set. Harm reduction leaders have many tips to avoid some of the pitfalls of leadership while ensuring that the leaders they chose can be as effective as possible. These best practice organizational insights included:

  • Transparency – policies, procedures, power structures, information sharing, decision-making, and problem-solving mechanisms must all be clear, open, and honest.
  • Honesty – a trait fundamental to effective organizations and leadership.
  • Equity – look for and counteract issues of social inequality with regard to race, class, gender, sexual orientation and behavior, ethnicity, disability, drug use, houselessness, history of incarceration, mental illness, and structural violence and barriers. Do not tokenize marginalized people or treat them as incapable of adhering to agency expectations. Empower people who benefit from harm reduction services in material ways, including providing them with opportunities to earn money and paying them for their expertise. Leaders talked about the need for other harm reduction leaders to confront bias within themselves, their agency, and the work they do in order to inspire the same in those they lead. Leaders understood that this meant recognizing and accommodating differences in culture, education, and capacity.
  • Expect change – in leadership, in relationships, in funding streams; become more focused on long-term outcomes and more prepared (rather than reactive) when change, inevitably, happens.
  • Encourage leadership – encourage others to lead by encouraging them to take on new tasks and challenges, especially people who have experienced structural violence.
  • Create checks and balances – especially with regard to service provision, finances, and personnel issues. Examples include having more than one person overseeing petty cash and having checklists for service shifts.
  • Create redundancies – redundancies in who can do tasks and how they can be done are an excellent way to ensure transparency and empower people.
  • Have clear boundaries – including practical considerations such as what kinds of services are provided, policies about everything from personnel issues to bathroom usage, who the agency will accept money from, and how donations are accepted.
  • Have clear decision-making guidelines – clear policies about who makes which decisions and how.
  • Provide support – create ways for leaders to support the people they lead, and also for leaders to have the support they need to do their best. (Support for leaders is often outside the organization.)
  • Think in terms of teams – thinking of the organization as a collective unit or team in pursuit of a common goal, with a common identity and a need to support one another in order to achieve that goal, is crucial to effective work.

More Resources

Don’t reinvent the wheel
During our development Harm Reduction Hacks have collected together a large number of resources from around the web you can find these in our resource folder in Google Docs. We are also always looking for more so help us by suggesting any resources we may have missed.
Suggest a Resource

External Resources

Collected from around the web
There are a number of external resources that contributed to the development of Harm Reduction Hacks. Here are a selection relating to this section:


The hacks on this site are shared with you under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International licence. This allows you (with attribution) to adapt content for your own use, although we do ask you to then also allow others to have equal access to anything you develop. More details of this licence can be found on the Creative Commons website.


We do not claim that this is an exhaustive set of strategies, shortcuts, or tips for running an SSP. What we do suggest is that Harm Reduction Hacks offers down-to-earth, practical information for being a better leader, starting and running an SSP, and providing syringe access services. We feel we can say this with confidence because the Hacks are based on interviews with, and the experiences of, literally generations of people who have been doing harm reduction work.

Please note that nothing in this guide should be construed as legal advice. Please consult an attorney local to your area to ensure your program is in compliance with all local, state and federal regulations that apply to your situation. 

Harm Reduction Hacks site design and implimentation by Nigel Brunsdon

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