Internal Community

Your internal community is the heart, soul, and backbone of your organization and includes staff, volunteers, program participants, board members, donors, and, often, community partners. Building internal community means building relationships based on your shared values as a part of a harm reduction organization, values such as:

  • Compassion
  • Non-judgment of people and their behavior
  • Reducing shame and stigma, especially related to drug use and other marginalized activities
  • Science and peer-reviewed evidence
  • Recognition that the impact of trauma and cultural barriers (such as racism, sexism, and classism) impact people’s relationships with drugs
  • Cultural humility and competency
  • Equity
  • Service
  • Recognition of personal autonomy
  • Meaningful empowerment
  • Transparency
  • Shared responsibility

Practicing these values with everyone you meet – from participants to donors – will build trust and the kind of community you will need in order to build the services you want for your participants.

Building Internal Community

Other suggestions for building community include:

  • Define mission and values – people commit to ideals and values they feel good about, so an important first step in building a strong internal community is defining the core mission and values of the organization.
  • Share power – making sure that various stakeholders have a real say in the agency helps people feel connected and committed to the work and mission.
  • Cultivate strong leadership – identifying and cultivating people that can take leadership positions and embody your mission and values is the key to building and sustaining your organization’s community.
  • Recognize contributions – take the time to publicly recognize and acknowledge the contributions of all stakeholders.
  • Practice equity – make sure that all policies and procedures are followed impartially, fairly, and universally. If there need to be exceptions, make sure those exceptions are transparent.
  • Give feedback – be willing to provide stakeholders with honest feedback about the needs of the organization that are not being met.
  • Assume positive intent – assuming other people mean well lightens moods, lowers stress levels, and quite often throws other people off guard in positive ways.
  • Be accountable – be willing to openly recognize the organization’s inevitable shortcomings.
  • Be transparent – being as honest and transparent as possible with regard to the organization and its workings helps build trust.
  • Be reliable – being an organization that people can count on is essential in harm reduction.
  • Have follow-through – follow through on all your commitments to your community, even if it is just to explain why you can’t do what you wanted or hoped.
  • Be equivocal – if you’re not sure the organization can achieve something say “maybe”.
  • Share food – finding ways to share food builds a sense of trust and community.
  • Be a team – act and think in terms of being a team – that is a collective unit in pursuit of a common goal, with a common identity and a need to support one another in order to achieve that goal.

Implementation Planning

Implementation planning is the final step in the planning process. This is where specific dates for achieving goals and mini-goals are made. This often seems like a step that organizations at the end of a long planning session can defer. Though this can be tempting, implementation planning is one of the most crucial steps in the planning process. It is critical to ensure you turn good intentions into actual outcomes.

It is important that as many dates as possible are put in concrete terms with actual deadlines and not ambiguous date ranges. Some goals will obviously be dependent on outside forces and must be left ambiguous. Renting a new space, for example, is dependent on available spaces and thus “in the next six months” may be adequate. But “have a participant on the Board of Directors” is something the organization clearly has control over thus a less ambiguous date, “by October 9”, for example, is more appropriate.

Implementation planning rests on its ability to keep folks as accountable to the plan as possible. Good implementation plans have dates for accountability built into them. The most ideal have an outside party, often the outside facilitator, act as the person responsible for reminding the organization about its commitments.

In short, some of the most important hacks for implementation planning are to:

  • Do it at the meeting/retreat.
  • Set dates for everything – including when you’ll check in next.
  • Be as concrete as possible with your dates.
  • Avoid ambiguous time frames unless absolutely necessary.
  • Have an accountability buddy.

Succession Planning

Succession planning is the process of preparing for large transitions, often in leadership, in an organization. Harm reduction leaders agreed that it is never too soon to start succession planning and that not doing so can lead agencies to serious issues with programmatic stability in the long term.

There are many guides to succession planning but Ready4Change (R4C) was created by Balanced Imperfection with funding from AIDS United and the Comer Family Foundation for harm reduction organizations to get ready for and respond to change when it happens. Some of the basic tenants of that work indicate that it is best to have preparatory conversations and documents before change takes place.

Some of the important preparatory conversations R4C suggested were conversations with:

  • Board(s) including Board of Directors (BOD), Community Advisory Board (CAB), Participant Advisory Board (PAB), Worker Co-op Boards, etc
  • Leadership staff
  • Outside leaders and directors
  • Funders

The following were determined to be critical in terms of documentation for succession planning:

For more information on this critical topic please see the extensive resources at

Strategic Planning

Strategic planning is setting goals and objectives given the SWOT analysis, determining actions to achieve goals, and mobilizing resources to execute those actions as a part of an implementation plan. In the context of formal program planning and grant writing, goals differ from objectives in that goals are about long-term, “big picture” outcomes while objectives are shorter-term outcomes that are clearly measurable.

Outcome vs. Process Objectives

Objectives can be further broken down into outcome and process objectives.

Process objectives are those that describe the activities/services/strategies that will be undertaken as part of implementing the program.

Outcome objectives are those that specify the intended effect of the program.


One of the most common frames for making goals and objectives actionable are SMART(IE) goals – that is setting goals that are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Achievable
  • Relevant/Realistic
  • Time-bound

The (IE) stands for issues that are frequently, but not always, a part of strategic planning goals:

  • Inclusion
  • Equity

As with all things harm reduction, these goals are further broken down into more incremental mini-goals along the way. Framing goals in this way can help you make not just a strategic plan but also an implementation plan – the plan for actually achieving goals.

Here are some examples goals and objectives for a harm reduction organization broken down as SMART(IE) goals:

Goal: Lower OD rates in Springfield, Example State (ES)

Process Objective 1: Create OD prevention and response training tailored to the needs of people who use drugs in Springfield, ES by September 30, 2022.

Process Objective 2: Train 300 people in Springfield, ES who use drugs and other proximate community members on OD prevention and response by June 30, 2023.

Outcome Objective 1: Lower incidence of OD in Springfield, ES by 25% by June 30, 2023.

These goals and objectives follow the SMART(IE) model – each is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, has an objective time frame and one goal, process objective 2, includes equity and inclusion by ensuring services are primarily aimed at people who use drugs.

SWOT Analysis

Strategic and implementation planning begin with a SWOT analysis. This analysis of an organization’s position in the market was first developed for the Stanford Research Institute by a management consultant named Albert Humphrey and his team in the 1960s.

SWOT stands for:

  • Strengths
  • Weaknesses
  • Opportunities
  • Threats

Strengths and Weaknesses refer to internal analysis – what are the organization’s positive and negative attributes? For harm reduction organizations this may include things like having a strong leader as a strength, while also recognizing that over-dependence on that leader is a potential weakness.

Opportunities and Threats refer to factors outside the agency. For harm reduction organizations this may include things like the ability to vet a new leader from outside the agency as an opportunity, while having a new leader who is less well-versed in managing community criticism may be a potential threat.

Values Statements

Values statements, often written as “Principles of Unity” or “North Star Statements”, encapsulate the full values and aspirations of the organization. These statements help define the culture of the organization and services it provides. These values may be simple:

We the members of (BLANK) affirm as our shared values:

  • Compassion
  • Non-judgment of people and their behavior
  • Reducing shame and stigma, especially related to drug use and other marginalized activities
  • Science and peer-reviewed evidence
  • Recognition that the impact of trauma and cultural barriers such as racism, sexism, and classism impact people’s
  • relationships with drugs
  • Cultural humility and competency
  • Equity
  • Service
  • Recognition of personal autonomy
  • Meaningful empowerment
  • Shared responsibility

Or more complex:

We, the employees, staff, and other interested stakeholders in the organization known as (BLANK) affirm the following shared principles and values regarding our work:

  • As an organization our highest values are honesty, integrity, respect, compassion, and empathy. These values form the foundation of all the work we do individually, and as an organization are the basis for all of our other shared principles.
  • We are committed to serving our community as well as the larger syringe access and harm reduction movements. All of our policies and decisions are driven by this dedication to service.
  • We accept that, for better and for worse, licit and illicit drug use is a part of our world and we choose to work to minimize the harmful effects of drugs rather than simply ignoring or condemning them.
  • We are committed to the provision of non-judgmental, non-coercive services and resources for people who use drugs, syringe access and harm reduction providers, and the communities in which they live and serve in order to assist them in reducing attendant harm.
  • People who use drugs are themselves the primary agents of reducing the harms of their drug use. We seek to empower users and syringe access providers to share information and support in order to enact strategies that meet their individual and community needs.
  • We recognize that the realities of poverty, class, racism, social isolation, past trauma, sex- and gender- based discrimination, and other social inequalities affect both people’s vulnerability to, and capacity for, effectively dealing with drug-related harm.
  • We are committed to the provision of evidence-based services responsive to the climates from which they emerge.
  • Individually and as an organization we will strive to work together with authenticity, humor, compassion, creativity, transparency, and critical thought to achieve our principles, goals, and mission.

The decisions on how to frame the values the organization wishes to embody is entirely up to their authors and their communities. There are other examples of potential value statements in the Resources section.

Mission Statements

A mission statement is a short statement about the purpose of the organization. Some important advice about your mission statement:

Mission statements should…

  • …be no more than one sentence.
  • …succinctly encapsulate the purpose of your organization.
  • …be general enough to be flexible.
  • …reflect your values.
  • …mention the population served.
  • …mention the services provided.
  • …be distinctive.

Organizational Planning

A part of any well-functioning harm reduction organization is regular organizational and strategic planning. This means a range of things including:

  • Mission Creation/Re-Visiting
  • Values Statements (Principles of Unity, North Star Statements etc.)
  • SWOT Analyses
  • Strategic Planning
  • Succession Planning
  • Implementation Planning

These pieces are grouped together because they are often done together during retreats or other times set aside specifically for organizational planning.

Though there are specific instructions for each, there are some general suggestions for all of them:

  • Set aside the time for planning – Because harm reduction organizations are on seemingly endless treadmills of challenges, setting aside time to plan may seem like a low priority but it is actually crucial to ensuring mission success. Not only does it help to focus and motivate stakeholders, it also improves participant outcomes and quality of services.
    Make sure a variety of stakeholders help plan – The assumption is often that the primary leader or the leader and an outside facilitator will plan any large decision-making meeting. However, in harm reduction organizations, best practices indicate that other invested stakeholders (board members, employees, participants) should be encouraged to at least contribute their ideas to the planning process.
  • Decide how long you’re planning for – Having both short (6mos-1year) and long (3-10years) plans is useful. For any given meeting decide in advance exactly what timeframes you will be working on. In general, it’s best to keep longer term plans more general and ambiguous and shorter-term ones more focused and detailed.
  • Answer “why?” – The most important question to answer is “why”. What is the purpose of the meeting? Do you need to make a strategic plan for the coming year? Do you need to come up with a values statement to focus your work? Are you expanding and need to decide how best to scale up? Do you need to plan for succession? Whatever it is, try and identify your purpose/intention to help give your meeting focus.
  • Go someplace else – It can be difficult to concentrate on planning in your regular workplace so go elsewhere for these deeper discussions.
  • Have icebreakers – Though members of leadership will often know all the stakeholders, it’s important to have ways for everyone to connect at the beginning of these meetings to help ensure cohesion.
  • Make sure a variety of stakeholders are represented in decision making – How stakeholders are represented is open to interpretation, some organizations hold open meetings, others have participant representatives on boards. Most use surveys or needs assessments to gather input ahead of decisions but it is important to get everyone’s buy-in, particularly regarding decisions that impact services, workplace, and motivation.
  • Get an outside facilitator – It is best to have a neutral party conducting the meeting and paying attention to its logistics so, if possible, hire someone. If hiring someone is not possible, get a volunteer from outside your agency to help facilitate the meeting.
  • Make an agenda – Having an agenda, and circulating it before the meeting, will save valuable time and effort. Try coming up with time limits for each agenda item to help keep meetings on track in order to complete all necessary business.
  • Don’t overdo it – Don’t pack your agenda so tightly that you don’t have time for important, unscripted conversations that may arise.
  • Learn formal processes – Learning about formal meeting processes like Robert’s Rules of Order or Formal Consensus can help you organize your meetings more effectively even if you don’t choose to use them.
  • Make community agreements first – At the start of your meeting make some agreements about how people will conduct themselves. It is important that you go over these even if you have standing community agreements for meetings. Here are some sample community agreements:
    • Be kind.
    • Assume positive intent – everyone is here to serve the community. Give the benefit of the doubt and ask questions.
    • Be curious, open, and respectful.
    • Avoid stigmatizing language and stories about people who use drugs and other marginalized folks.
    • Call in, not out.
    • Check your privilege and check-in with your oppression.
    • No one knows everything! Together we know a lot.
    • If you don’t understand something, ask.
    • Take care of ourselves – stretch, eat, drink, use the restroom, rest, etc.
    • Confidentiality – what is said here stays here.
    • One voice at a time.
    • Speak up/hold back. (Work to make sure everyone gets a similar amount of “air time”.)
    • Avoid jargon, acronyms, and industry language – use inclusive language that is accessible for people with varying inside knowledge and levels of education. If jargon or acronyms are essential, explain them.
    • Be aware of time – it’s helpful to have at least one group member in charge of watching the agenda and the clock. This can be the facilitator but it is often helpful to have someone in addition to the facilitator minding the time.
    • ELMO- (Enough Let’s Move On) means if what you wanted to say has already been said, don’t say it.
    • Speak from your own experience and use “I” statements.
    • Challenge assumptions and stereotypes.
    • Be conscious of intent vs. impact – no matter what your intention is, you’re responsible for your impact.
  • Set aside time to do – When possible, set aside time during planning sessions to do some of the tasks identified during planning. This helps ensure follow-through.
  • Serve food – If possible, serve/share food. This builds community and helps keep ideas flowing and patience intact.
  • Set aside time for fun – Even if it’s a few minutes, having fun together builds community and collaboration.
  • Respect people’s time – Stick to the timeframes you advertised, and people agreed to, even if it means adjourning without completing every agenda item. If you have to adjourn before the agenda has been finished, be sure and schedule time to complete the agenda before the meeting is concluded.
  • Have an accountability buddy – Put people in charge of holding people accountable for the tasks and responsibilities they take on individually and collectively. It is ideal if your facilitator can also fulfill this responsibility.

Types of Fiscal Entities

Once you have decided how you will handle power in your organization you are ready to consider basic logistics such as your fiscal structure. Most independent SSPs are organized as charitable organizations (nonprofits), which have legal and tax requirements. There are several ways that harm reduction groups have organized themselves in order to meet those requirements. These include:

  • Fiscal Sponsorship
    Fiscal sponsorship often works best for small, grassroots organizations – especially those just getting started. This allows an organization to have a separate bank account in most states, get some forms of funding, have their money accounted for by a 501(c)3, and provide donors with tax-deductible donation letters. There are limitations to fiscal sponsorship – many benefits given to stand-alone organizations are not available to fiscal sponsorees, and donations made by foundations and government entities must be made through the sponsor. Also, fiscal sponsors often take a percentage (5-10% is most common) of donations to help pay for administrative and accounting overhead. In many cases, smaller organizations will be sponsored by a larger organization they have an existing relationship with. In some cases, a small project may look for a fiscal sponsor. If your organization is interested in this type of relationship and doesn’t have a partner in mind, decide how much support you need and ask to talk with the leaders of other projects sponsored by the organization you are interested in. Always be sure to discuss your rights and obligations with your potential sponsor before you begin your relationship with them.
  • Worker and/or Participant Cooperative and Hybrids
    Perhaps because of its broad emphasis on autonomy, harm reduction has seen many styles of cooperatively run service organizations. “Cooperative organization” is a broad term that includes many types of democratically run organizations. Harm reduction has been home to both worker cooperatives (in which staff and/or volunteers run the organization) and consumer or, in this case, participant, cooperatives (which are run by people receiving services). These participant cooperatives traditionally require “sweat equity”- work – for a participant to be considered enfranchised (able to vote/make decisions for the organization). There have also been a variety of hybrids – a mix of cooperative and more common kinds of organizations, which allow those organizations to be run in whole or in part by either the workers or participants. This is sometimes done because there is no way to legally organize a “cooperatively run nonprofit”; these groups have generally organized themselves as 501(c)3 nonprofit organizations, or occasionally as religious groups, with all of the risks, benefits, and responsibilities of those fiscal entities. Though these types of entities are required by law to do certain things like have a board of directors, they have worked within those restrictions by altering their bylaws to suit the actual realities of how their organizations function. For example, granting the powers normally reserved for the Board of Directors to an internal democratic body they create.
  • Stand Alone Non-profit (CBO or NPO)
    Most independent SSPs that need to be funded will eventually choose to file as a nonprofit IRS tax entity known as a 501(c)3. This gives the SSP a tax identification number that allows it to avoid taxes on money received and also to share tax benefits with other organizations, as well as accept money from most foundations and government contracts. Though there are a variety of risks, primarily to members of the board of directors, they are generally outweighed by the benefits of being able to receive the privileges, discounts, donations, and grants that are unavailable to other types of organizations.
  • Embedded Programs
    Another avenue grassroots organizations have taken to be able to receive the benefits of being a non-profit is to become an extension of a larger, more established, non-profit. Because legal and fiscal needs are generally overseen by the larger entity they are part of, they are not discussed here.

Organizational Culture and Power

Things like organizational culture and design can sound boring, abstract, or superfluous, but to build an organization that is going to last, they need to be considered from the outset. There are many tools for assessing the existing organizational style of your organization and/or learning how to adjust it.

In general, according to the principles of business management, organizations tend to exist on a spectrum from:

Flat/Non-Hierarchical <—> Pyramid/Rigidly Hierarchical
Collaborative/Relational <—> Individualistic

Harm reduction organizations tend to fall on the more collaborative end of the organizational spectrum, with an emphasis on being driven by mission or values. This is because harm reduction organizations, at their best, embody the principles of harm reduction – including the commitment to empowering those most impacted by the harms they seek to minimize.

It is essential for organizations to decide exactly where they want to fall on these spectrums and to talk about organizational culture openly and honestly. This transparency can set the stage for new leaders to emerge and for information and power to be more effectively shared.

Too often, leaders and organizations are reluctant to look objectively at the various kinds of power in their organizations for fear of “upsetting the apple cart”, losing power, or simply because they lack the time, framework, or mentorship to do so. But understanding the dynamics of power, objectively evaluating it in your organization, and making transparent decisions about who gets to have what power (and therefore make what decisions) creates a more functional culture for running the organization on a day-to-day basis.

Power is said to be held in several different ways and there are a variety of models to describe it. One of the most famous models was developed by social psychologists John French and Bertram Raven in 1959. They described the following forms of power in organizations:

  • Legitimate – power that comes from a shared belief that a person has the formal right to make demands because power has been conferred to them legitimately (for example through hiring or election).
  • Expert – power based on a person’s skill or knowledge.
  • Referent – power that is the result of a person’s perceived attractiveness, worthiness, and right to others’ respect.
  • Reward – power that results from the ability to compensate someone for compliance.
  • Coercive – power that comes from the belief that a person can punish others for noncompliance.
  • Informational – power that results from a person’s ability to control the information that others need to accomplish something.

Every organization uses a variety of these kinds of power. Objectively evaluating how power functions, and actively deciding how you want it to, can make a huge difference in creating an organizational culture that is more functional and healthier for all involved.


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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