Deciding how volunteers will be recruited and vetted should be part of any volunteer plan. The population served by the SSP is the most obvious group to include in any recruitment plan for an SSP. Others in communities frequently looking for volunteer opportunities are college and university students (especially students in social services and medicine) and retirees. These communities often have flexible schedules and are either looking to launch careers or give back to their communities. In addition, members of participants’ communities, socially conscious faith communities, and folks who have changed their previously chaotic relationships with drugs are also excellent people to recruit as volunteers.
SSPs should consider having regular open house or tour events so potential volunteers and other community members can see the organization in action and get a sense of whether it is a good fit for them. Some programs allow potential volunteers to “shadow” during shifts, while other SSPs don’t feel comfortable having “tourists” on site. Whatever you decide for your program, do at least have a conversation about participant confidentiality with anyone who visits your program and will encounter participants – including potential volunteers and funders.
Recruitment does not stop when organizations have people in the door. It is equally important to vet potential volunteers to make sure they have the temperament and capacity to treat SSP participants with the dignity, compassion, and respect that every SSP participant should expect at harm reduction programs.
To vet volunteers, consider having both a written application and an interview process that allows you and the candidate to get a good sense of each other. Many folks recruiting volunteers feel awkward vetting people who are willing to work for free, which is understandable under the idea that “beggars can’t be choosers”. To overcome this awkwardness, always remember that vetting volunteers is a way of ensuring a good cultural fit and protecting your participants and work environment.
For permanent volunteers, who are almost like staff, ask for a commitment of at least a year. SSPs serve highly criminalized populations, so they rely heavily on the goodwill and trust of community members. That trust is built through relationships and takes time. Remember, you are asking your volunteers to make a promise to your community, don’t be shy about the expectation that they commit to that community.
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.
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.