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Armstrong Institute for Patient Safety and Quality

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Planning for Program Activities

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Program Goals

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Once the purpose of the program has been outlined and the need identified, write clear concise action-related goals. This will help you measure your progress over time. The goals may be based on the guiding principles and purpose of the organization, values and beliefs of the community, or the need for the program.

Here are a few examples of what some programs include in their goal statements:

  • Help individuals and their families better cope with the illness or other difficult situation
  • Connect people seeking support with a peer supporter who has similar experiences
  • Fulfill requests for information and share stories of personal experiences
  • Provide emotional and social support
  • Provide peer services for individuals in a specific community
  • Offer practical daily living strategies from people in similar circumstances

It is helpful to write down a few action-related goals. These will help people involved in the program (or interested in it) understand what to expect from the program. There are a number of resources available online to help create clear and concise goals, such as SMART goals.

Program Approach, Scope and Content

Peer support can be provided using group or one-on-one support. The support can be guided and structured with planned discussions on specific topics or be more free-flowing with flexible conversations that follow the interests of program participants. To meet the needs of the people you plan to serve, it is important to look at the benefits and limitations of these approaches. A combination of approaches may be helpful, but some programs may not have the resources needed to offer both types.

Various program approaches are summarized in the Table below. Some programs offer multiple services using various types of approaches.

 BenefitsLimitations
Guided Approach

A main topic or theme can help keep the discussion focused, positive, and solution-oriented (participant may get more out of the conversation)

May help peer supporters to follow the program requirements.

It may feel like a lecture. To avoid this, deliver content in an engaging manner. For example invite the participant to talk and share their story.

Program leaders will have to spend time developing and periodically reviewing content.

Flexible Approach

Program participants are free to ask any questions, share any concerns or talk about resources offered through the program or in the community.

The schedule is usually driven by what works best for the participant. (Some programs have a set number of sessions or a defined length of time for the peer supporter and participants to interact.)

Peer supporters need to be able to respond to a wide variety of questions about situations they may not have personally experienced.

Program leaders will need to supply additional resources to help the peer supporter feel better prepared to help participants.

One-on-one Support

May work well when the participant has specific needs.

A participant may feel more comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings with one individual than with a group

The peer supporter and participant can build rapport over time and that may help the supporter better understand the emotional state of the participant.

May offer more flexibility in how support is provided (telephone, in-person, email or text).

Peer supporters or participants who want in-person meetings may find it challenging if they live in different towns or even in different areas of the same city.

Matching two people with similar experiences could prove challenging.

Group Support

Members working through similar problems can share experiences, encouragement and provide tips and resources that might help each other.

The group format may bring a sense of community to participants showing that they are not alone, and that others have been where they are now and understand how they feel.

Participants who are there to get their needs met may also find that even if their problem cannot be “solved”, they may be empowered and comforted by offering advice and support to others in the group. They may leave the group feeling better than when they arrived.

Participants may feel uncomfortable or unwilling to share their story in a group

Group leaders often need training and practice on how to facilitate group conversations and manage group dynamics (example how to help the group avoid negative dialogue).

To adapt, programs may need to develop their own way of providing group support.

“I think there are tons of people that are just not comfortable going into a group setting and revealing their emotional distress, or their concerns or issues, and other people are willing to give that a try and see if it works for them…I think sometimes the one-on-one, it’s a little easier for people to ask their questions, develop some trust with the person.”
Quote from a peer supporter

When developing a program, leaders might need to consider how their setting or community can impact their choice of approach to providing peer support. For instance, some rural areas might not have a large enough number of participants to hold group events. Also availability of resources such as public transportation or access to technology need to be considered.

Program scope and the content provided to peer supporters and participants can range from basic talking points to help supporters start conversations with a participant, to detailed pre-planned educational activities.

Content to Peer Supporters and Program Participants
Simple
(for more flexible approach to peer support)

Talking points and resources for peer supporters. These talking points can be used as starting points or ice breakers for peer supporters to use to help start conversations and encourage discussion

 

Contact checklists or summary sheets may be used for reporting back to program leaders, as reminders of previous conversations, and to keep a record of the program participants’ history

 

Resource databases by geographic area, issue or health condition that peer supporters can access to answer questions or provide referrals. (This approach requires effort to keep the resources up-to-date).

 Materials and links to resources for program participants, free of charge, through organizational websites
 

Comprehensive content for peer supporters to use during conversation with participants and guidance on group facilitation

Subject matter experts develop and refine content, record keeping documents and feedback documentation for program leaders

Complex
(for more guided approach to peer support)
Customizable program for participants, with weekly updates, web based content, apps for smartphones and products
Parent-to-Parent of Georgia (state-level P2PUSA) offers a searchable database of service providers for children with special needs

When choosing materials for your program, review ones that have been based on studies that show they work well, and adapt these materials to fit your needs. If you decide to create new materials, be prepared to spend a lot of time on finding relevant content. For example, Weight Watchers has a devoted team that develops content to share with participants and keeps it updated with new information and studies on weight management.

Another option may be to partner with a national, state, or local program that has similar goals and offers materials or resources to new programs. For example, NAMI and P2PUSA are national organizations that offer materials, training, and support for their peer programs.

Program Delivery

After you decide on your program approach, content, and scope, think about the program personnel you will need. For example, who will lead the program, who will coordinate the support activities, and who will provide peer support. You will need to also consider how the peer supporters (those providing support to other peers) will be prepared and supported. Also, depending on your program approach, you may need to decide how you will be connecting (or matching) the peer supporters with the program participants.

Program Personnel

Program personnel including volunteers and any paid positions will vary based on your support activities, funding and scope of the program. You will have to estimate how many participants you expect to serve, how many peer supporters you will need, and what program materials and supplies if any are needed. Consider what program services will require someone to coordinate the work and who will do that. Also, think carefully about who will guide and support your peer supporters.

Number of Peer Supporters Needed

The number of peer supporters needed, will depend on the scope and format of your support services. Some programs connect one peer supporter with several participants at once, others match them with only one participant at a time.

Questions for program leaders to think about regarding personnel:

  • What funding is available to hire staff? Where will future funding come from? What work can be done by volunteers?
  • What demand (or requests) for peer support do you anticipate in your area?
  • How many personnel and/or volunteers do you need to meet that demand?
  • Do you need to offer paid positions (for example, a social worker, nurse or more experienced program leader, who can guide and support your peer supporters)?
  • As your staff or volunteer numbers grow, how will you maintain the quality of your program?
  • How will you manage and support your volunteers?
  • What is the optimal ratio of peer supporters to program participants?

There are several types of personnel that can be involved in peer support programs. They will vary based on the nature of services that you wish to provide and your program setting. In addition to peer supporters, personnel in peer support programs may include paraprofessionals (persons trained and certified for their job, such as certified recovery specialists), program coordinators, trainers, and health care professionals (for example, nurses and social workers).

Below is a description of the support services provided by these different types of personnel.

Peer Supporters

  • The services provided by peer supporters are at the center of what peer support programs offer. The relationship between people who have had similar experiences is unique to peer support programs.
  • Commonly, peer supporters are volunteers in programs so it is important to be aware that they may have limited time, competing priorities, or other commitments. Some may want to volunteer, but may not fit well in the role of a peer supporter. In that event, you may be able to find another role that they can play.
  • If the peer supporters/volunteers will be working in a professional or health care setting, you need to consider whether you will face resistance from staff. Talk to the staff in these settings to find out their concerns and discuss potential benefits of the peer support program. Consider including peer supporters who can share the potential value of peer support when talking to staff, and provide pointers to those individuals.
  • It is important to keep in mind that peer supporters may still be emotionally or physically working through their own problem (or recovering from it) and may need periodic support themselves.
  • Be aware that the activity of providing peer support and being a resource to others can be extremely empowering, even transformative, for peer supporters.

Para-professionals

Dee’s Place has peer recovery coach training for staff who want to learn new support skills.
  • These may be program leaders who work to get funding for the program (see Planning a Peer Support Program), or persons with special training who can offer a certain type of support to participants (for example, a community health worker can help with transportation questions.)
  • Some para-professionals start as volunteer peer supporters and then go through training and certification in order to offer additional support services. ( For example, a pathway may be provided between volunteer peers and community health workers).
  • Some participants may not feel that para-professionals are their peers, even if they have shared similar experiences. They may see them as health professionals rather than a peer who is there to listen and understand what they are going through. This can often be addressed by clearly defining the para-professional’s role and how they engage with peer participants.

Professional-delivered Services

  • Peer support programs embedded in a health care setting often have health care professionals, such as nurses or social workers, to support the peer supporters. They also usually manage the day-to-day operations of the program, including matching a patient needing support with a peer supporter (learn more about matching in the next section on Matching Peer Supporters and Program Participants).
  • Health care staff are able to link participants to other services, such as referrals for mental health or substance abuse, or screening for other illnesses.
  • The salaries of the health care professionals are usually paid from grants or by a department with an interest in supporting the program. Program leaders may have difficulty finding funding to support these roles.

Matching Peer Supporters and Program Participants

Learn more about Parent-to-Parent’s matching practices and their network of supporters.

In programs using one-on-one peer support formats, peer supporters are sometimes ‘matched’ to program participants. People are commonly matched on similar health conditions, age, and other circumstances. Though the process may be time-consuming and challenging, achieving a successful match can produce very good results. Creating a good match starts with knowing your peer supporter (and some of their personal traits) and identifying the needs of the program participant.

To ensure an optimal match over time, program leaders may need to match a participant to several peer supporters or change peer supporters over time depending on the participant’s stage of illness. This may be particularly relevant to programs such as Parent-to-Parent USA where a participant may be struggling with a very rare disease.

A poor match could leave a program participant with unmet needs. Sometimes this can be due to location. If the peer supporter lives in a different geographic area, they may not know exactly what resources can be found where the participant lives. Also, different types of communities (urban versus rural) may have more or less access to resources.

A peer supporter may decide that their match with a participant is not working well, or that the participant may need additional help. In those cases, they need to connect the participant with either another ‘peer supporter’ or with the program leader.

At The Parent Connection peer supporters are trained to identify the signs of post-partum depression. When they identify a participant with those signs they refer them to the program coordinators, who are social workers and skilled in talking to new mothers about post-partum depression and, referring them for appropriate care.

In some programs, participants play a proactive role in seeking the peer supporter whom they get matched with. For example, at Dee’s Place, the program participant seeks a ‘sponsor’ rather than the program leader providing a match (12-step program approach). At NAMI, a potential participant will contact the national, state or local branch, and after a conversation about their situation, will be connected with a local NAMI leader or directly with a support group facilitator or course teacher.

Communicating About the Program

The purpose of communicating about your program is to share information about it and make more people aware of the problem your program will help address.

Materials given to the general public about the program should be plainly written and have basic information, such as:

  • Purpose of the program
  • Who the program will serve
  • Potential benefits of support
  • A description of what participants can expect. For example, participation is voluntary, information is not shared, medical care is not offered, their feedback is welcome, how they will be contacted, and how they will connect or meet with peer supporter.

Materials and information that are relayed to community or institutional leaders, possible funders, and other programs should include details and proposed outcome measures relevant to them (for example, estimate of need, number engaged or served and/or budget).

To spread the word about your program

  • use multiple communication approaches
  • connect with other programs for support
  • connect peer supporters to key people
  • find program champions

Use Multiple Communication Approaches

In order to reach all relevant parties, you will need to spread the word through a variety of channels and networks; for example, communicating information both in person and electronically. The table below lists some ways to spread the word and some of their potential benefits.

MethodDetails
Email and listserv communications
  • An effective way for program staff to communicate.
  • May offer an easy way to spread the word within an organization or to a large group of people
  • A listserv can be invaluable if you and your program actively and regularly expand it by proactively adding anyone who either has expressed interest in peer programming, has access to networks or organizations that engage peers or potential community partners, or might offer funding or in-kind services. Leveraging such a constantly expanding listserv (and/or social media) can be very beneficial.
Website
  • Easy, low-cost way to reach people seeking support and to post volunteer opportunities
  • Wide reach to people in various geographic locations
  • Program leaders and peer supporters can download materials (if you set up a private page)
Marketing materials
  • Printed materials (flyers, brochures) that advertise the program and provide contact information.
  • Handout those at health fairs, community centers, clinics, etc.
  • Can be distributed by peers, volunteers and community partners to their sites, and more broadly, through their networks.
  • Videos (more expensive) can offer personal stories online or in person (potentially more dynamic).
Newsletters
  • Can include program information in an organizational newsletter or make one specific to your program
  • Can keep funders, peer supporters, and program participants involved and informed
  • Can email, post on website, or send by regular mail
  • Contain updates, accomplishments, opportunities
  • Provide a way to attract new people and new funders
  • Can be monthly or quarterly
News coverage
  • Requires that you contact media through press releases or “pitching” a story (letting them know you have a good story and people who would be willing to be interviewed)
  • Reach a large number of people
  • News spotlight or interview on TV
  • Newspaper or magazine articles or advertisements; radio interviews
Social media
  • May help to attract new members or bring existing members closer together. For example, Weight Watchers has a platform called “Connect,” where members post and interact with one another.
  • Social media platforms can be very useful for communicating about the program
  • In some limited circumstances social media can be used to deliver peer support, however you need to consider confidentiality implications with this approach.
  • Can keep everyone connected and updated (especially younger audiences)
  • Fast way to promote and remind about upcoming events

Note: while social media can spread information quickly, some program participants may feel left out if they do not use social media but others do. You should consider whether you need to monitor these sites to be sure they are used in appropriate ways.

Social events
  • Educate and inform the public about the program
  • Recruit peer supporters and program participants
  • Raise awareness and solicit donations
  • Celebrate and recognize peer supporter efforts
Conferences, conventions, workshops, webinars
  • Platform to report on the program and its best practices
  • Webinars allow programs to connect electronically; discuss the program, conduct training or coaching sessions
  • Way to connect with others to discuss experiences, share best practices
Testimonials
  • Formal or informal statements describing program experiences (for example, narratives and stories)
  • Written, video-recorded or audio-recorded
Annual reports
  • Good document to support requests for funding
  • Way to inform others about progress of program (for example, number of people served, number of participants that felt the program helped them)

Connect with Another Program for Support

When programs are stand-alone in the community or even in an organization, it may help to partner with related programs for support, and to exchange advice and possibly resources. For example, a partner program could share in the planning, cost and delivery of volunteer recognition events, or expand a network of contacts. They may also have a solution to a problem or advice about an approach that worked well for them.

Connect Peer Supporters to Key People

NAMI Peer Supporters speak to decision makers with a short story, and they contact State delegates to advocate for mental health care funding at the State level.

Peer supporters may have a role in obtaining support for your program. By sharing their experiences and forming relationships they can increase buy-in. This role can strengthen connections inside and outside the program.

Find Program Champions

Program champions (physicians, staff, social workers, participants) can be potential leaders or key supporters of peer support programs. They can support a program, relate a vision/mission, get people involved, connect your program with partner networks, and help when change or flexibility is needed. They can also help expand a program by building peer interaction, and actively promote a program through outreach.

Champions at Parent to Parent USA reach out to regional centers to build relationships with support groups and other agencies.

One of the best ways to create champions may be to involve them early when you are developing the program. This may make the success of the program personal to them and strengthen their commitment. For example, they can help screen or train volunteers or review marketing materials. Some champions may be excellent candidates for Board membership or participation in an oversight committee or council.

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Updated: March 2018