Workforce Development Hacks for SSPs


Volunteers are in many ways the lifeblood of harm reduction programs, representing a large portion of the total syringe access workforce. These volunteers can be peripheral, such as volunteers providing help with activities like kit making and paperwork, or they can help in more central, direct service roles providing syringe access and other harm reduction services on the ground.

Every SSP should consider taking advantage of the potential that volunteers represent for the expansion and sustainability of their agency. Many SSPs “start from the middle” with volunteers because they are volunteer initiatives to begin with. so “creating a volunteer plan” can seem redundant.

However, even if you are a volunteer yourself, creating a volunteer plan can help you get a sense of what your program needs, and what your responsibilities and challenges are with regard to taking on more volunteers. The most successful volunteer programs must decide:

  • What you need volunteers for – Decide what tasks and/or jobs can be done by volunteers and how many volunteers you would ideally like to have.
  • What training and support your volunteers will need – Assume that your volunteers will be coming to you with little or no experience doing the work your program does and plan on training them accordingly. Experience with drug use or lifestyle is not the only training needed to provide harm reduction services. In the same vein, just because someone has an academic or professional background related to harm reduction does not mean they automatically know what it is like to use drugs or live as a person who uses drugs.
  • What you are offering for your volunteers in return for their help – It goes without saying that volunteers won’t be paid in cash, but successful programs also understand that everyone needs to be appreciated and they find ways to compensate volunteers through occasional gifts, volunteer appreciation days, opportunities to attend conferences, professional support (such as training and professional and academic recommendations) and, paid work if the option arises.
  • What your expectations are for your volunteers – Finally, you must set clear expectations and boundaries for volunteers including commitment, attendance, behavior, training, and so on.

Volunteers in harm reduction programs fall into three broad categories: short-term, permanent, and secondary.

  • Short-term volunteers – Short-term volunteer positions don’t usually include participant contact because SSPs participants do best in programs where they are able to develop relationships with SSP staff. Examples of short-term volunteers include folks who volunteer for events and kit making.
  • Permanent volunteers – these are long-term volunteers who have contact with participants. SSP volunteers may run shifts, do testing, provide naloxone training, or any other service the organization provides that they are trained to do.
  • Secondary or community volunteers – these are SSP participants who provide secondary access to harm reduction supplies (taking syringes, kits, naloxone, or information to their friends), and they should be considered an essential part of your capacity to reach the most secluded participants in the community.

Volunteers are a commitment and will take time to develop and support, but the reward is an enthusiastic pool of passionate community members who can help take responsibility for ensuring your participants are provided with the best possible services, allow staff to focus on other program and service areas, and increase your community footprint and brand by acting as ambassadors for your organization.

In harm reduction, peer volunteers are often seen as ideal because community members can relate to them and they provide another way for people to work on their own needs while providing for others. They have essential lived experience and tend to be less judgmental and stigmatizing towards participants. People from outside the community, as long as they approach participants with respect and compassion, can offer a different perspective and represent a particular kind of privacy to some participants because they are not from the community. Many of the strongest programs in harm reduction have drawn significant strength from diversity so it is best to have a wide volunteer base, which should always include peers.

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.
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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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