Assessing the Need for Program

To begin, make sure that there is a need for the program you have in mind and that you are not duplicating available services. Search the internet for similar programs and talk to the leaders who run these programs to find out if a program is needed. Ask people what they need and what they believe the program should offer. At this stage, it is important to think about how you can engage people in your program and give them what they need so they stay engaged over time.

While defining your program, describe how program participants, or potential participants, may be helped by peer support. Keep in mind that some participants might only have a vague idea of what type or amount of support they want. Here are some examples:

  • They may want to feel less stressed, or not feel alone and isolated by their problem or circumstance.
  • They may want lasting relationships or a sense of community, a person who listens to them, or a place to feel safe and fully accepted.
  • They may want information and resources to help them with health or other issues.

Continue to get potential participants’ input in the planning stage with the aim of ensuring they have the best possible experience once the program commences.

Find key people who may benefit in a more general way from your peer support program and ask their advice about starting a program. People you may want to seek out, depending on whether your program starts in a health care facility or a community setting, include:

  • formal or informal leaders in the organization or community who influence or make decisions; for example, clinicians in a health care organization, or leaders of a community-based program
  • people who can relate to the problem you want to address; they may be clinical or non-clinical, and vary in education and experience
  • leaders who see themselves as change agents, are interested in supporting your program, and can link to resources within an organization or in other partner organizations
  • other experts within your organization who can help, such as a person in the budget or communications department

Learn More About the Target Organization or Community

When building a program learn about the beliefs and practices of the organization or community where the program will be based to ensure that these are aligned with peer support. Read their mission or vision statement to make sure it matches your proposed program. For example, is their statement consistent with the population you want to serve and the goals you want to achieve?

When planning for a new program, you may find the SWOT analysis approach useful. SWOT stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats. This involves asking the following questions:

  • What strengths in the organization or community can help your program? (Examples: a meeting space; access to personnel; access to other potential partners in the community or organization or to their networks)
  • What weaknesses in the organization or community will you need to consider? (Examples: no place to store program materials; too far away)
  • What opportunities in the organization or community can help your program? (Examples: upcoming health fair at a community center; a clinic looking for a place to refer a patient; the site will assist with outreach through their networks, members or partners)
  • What threats or challenges to the program are in the organization or community? (Examples: persons opposed to the program; shortage of resources; safety; lack of transportation; potential to be viewed as competition)

Secure “Buy-in”

  1. Step 1: Compose a short, clear description of your program and list the reasons why peer support may be needed.

  2. Step 2: Determine who the key people are within the organization or community where you want to base your program. Think who may be affected by or interested in your program. Plan to meet them.

  3. Step 3: Prepare for your meetings by gathering information or materials that detail the potential benefits of peer support. Here are some topics that may help you make a stronger case for starting your program:

    • existing need for peer support
    • lack of programs in your area
    • aligns with organizational values and beliefs
    • builds on existing organizational strengths and fills a gap in services currently offered

Initial Decisions in Getting Started

Who will “own” the program and run it?

Find the department in the organization or community group that can potentially benefit from this program, and are able to offer administrative support, hands-on help, access to volunteers, or low-cost assistance

Who will develop the program plan?

Try to form a team to help develop the program. Include potential program participants and their family members to offer input on what is needed as well as business-minded people to compose the business plan.

What format of peer support will be used?

There are many types of peer support (see the sub-section Program Approach, Scope and Content).

How will the program be paid for?

Peer support programs can be funded in a variety of ways. You may wish to search for grants and donations, possibly from local or state sources, such as the Department of Health or the Department of Education. Ask for small amounts of funding to start-up and show that the program really works. Use any potential success to encourage additional funding.


National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) — Many NAMI organizations look for private grant or governmental funding that is tied to the specific peer program. Most NAMIs seek unrestricted financial support (not government-related) to sustain their activities. This can include joint fund raising events such as walkathons. Most depend on individual donations including annual campaigns, workplace giving (such as United Way), and support from peers who have benefited from free NAMI programs.

All NAMIs seek in-kind and financial support by developing relationships with local community organizations, such as boys or girls clubs, faith congregations, or behavioral health providers. Some programs are completely volunteer-based with little funding; for example, those who partner with churches to host meetings.

Parent Connection — Nurses at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital discovered that more support was needed for new mothers. They applied to a grant program funded by proceeds from the hospital’s gift shop and received funding for one-year. During this period, they were able to collect data that showed the potential impact of the program. After the first year, the obstetrics department paid the social worker’s salary and the hospital paid the program coordinator’s salary.

Start-up Plan

Develop a plan

A simple business plan may work. Involve all team members (see Initial Decisions Getting Started above) in composing the plan. Have key people review the plan and give input. Remember to include potential program participants.

Create a timeline

Decide on a realistic start-up timeline with milestones. Add projected dates to finish major pieces of the plan and assign a team member to each piece.

Create a budget

Create a simple budget (there are examples and templates you can find on the web).

Plan to build relationships

Plan to build relationships and develop a process for input and support; both of these are high priority for a program in its early stages.

Motivate and engage key people

If your program will serve people receiving health care, connect with a few nurses and physicians who take care of these patients and who could potentially benefit from your program. For example, in Parent Connection, the nurses refer new mothers to the program; the success of the program is dependent on this referral by nurses and other hospital staff.

If your program is going to work with individuals of a particular target demographic (and/or their families), make sure you connect with groups that actively engage with, or are made up of key people from those demographics. For example, NAMI Maryland works with leaders in different faith and ethnic communities, veteran-serving organizations, and civic, fraternal and professional organizations.


Establish a communication path that flows back and forth to ensure that everyone is kept informed. Even small programs need a process to keep everyone involved. This practice may help with developing and maintaining a good quality program.

Plan for the future

As part of your start-up planning, think about the long-term goals for the program. Invite everyone to contribute. You can seek diverse input from:

  • people seeking peer support
  • professional experts or people with a business or human services background
  • patient- and family-centered care experts

This approach may produce new ideas and help with the development of the program.

A process for when and how to spread the word should be included in the start-up plan, and mapping it on a timeline may be helpful. Questions to consider as you plan how to spread the word about your program most effectively may include:

  • When will you be ready to get the word out?
  • When and how will it be disseminated?
  • Who are the key groups to target?
  • What content should you relay and to whom?
  • When and how should you relay this information?
  • Are you able to respond to questions? If not, who will do this?

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Updated: March 2018