Valuing lived experience of substance use in our organizations: Five areas of policy and best practice


Does your organization support the meaningful engagement of individuals with lived experience of substance use? The assumption and our immediate response to this question should be a resounding yes! However, we know that this is often not the case.

While many AIDS service organization (ASO) leaders would state that they have effective practices that accomplish meaningful engagement in place, most naturally lean towards either strong organizational practices at the expense of flexible support or strong, flexible support at the expense of strong, sustainable organizational practices. Both of these result in greater organizational risk and often in sub-optimal service delivery and care.

The Ontario Organizational Development Program’s (OODP) Substance Use Policy Guide & Template  was developed to support ASO leaders to build successful policies and best practices that will enhance the capacity of our sector to meaningfully involve people with lived experience of substance use in the effective delivery of all ASO services and programs.

What you can find in the guide

The policy guide outlines five areas of policy and best practice:

  1. Employing people who use substances
  2. Human resources (HR) management
  3. Support for staff, peers and other volunteers with lived experience of substance use
  4. Performance
  5. Relationships

The identified need for this resource and also a key factor influencing the content that has been included and how it has been written relates to the challenge experienced by organizations in trying to balance conflicting requirements and commitments towards:

  • organizational structures and practices (policies, systems, legal accountabilities);
  • employment regulations (legislation); and
  • our sector’s value of GIPA/MEPA (the greater involvement of people with HIV/AIDS and the meaningful engagement of people with HIV/AIDS) and lived experience.

The foundational principles

In developing the resource, the high value we place on lived experience in our work was recognized as a key driver and powerful foundation. The commitment to this foundational principle is evident throughout the five areas of policy and best practices. Additionally, other foundational principles identified include: the importance of an increased understanding of the lived experience of substance use; the complex and fluid ways that substance use can contribute to an individual’s overall health and wellness; recognizing contribution; and understanding potential tensions beyond the program level.

Given the breadth of policy and best practices covered in the resource, it was structured with the intention to:

  • be reviewed by relevant internal stakeholders and modified to develop a policy that aligns with the current structure, practices and needs of each organization;
  • highlight and cross-reference relevant existing organizational resources rather than duplicate or complicate;
  • complement existing resources;
  • incorporate best practices;
  • be a policy guide and template to support long-term accountability and objectivity.

A few key highlights

To effectively engage individuals with lived experience of substance use in organizational roles, it is important that the organization provide clear expectations to all staff, peers and other volunteers, both in relation to duties and behaviours and support for a positive, non-judgmental organizational culture.

Organizational policy, practices and supports will help to balance meaningful engagement and support for staff, peers and other volunteers who use substances with the effective execution of their required activities and deliverables.

Finally, if issues arise, the organization should respond objectively, based on existing and appropriate policies and practices, and:

  • should not make assumptions, use judgments or show bias towards potential substance use;
  • should reflect flexibility such as setting the work expectations (hours of delivery, approach used, etc.);
  • consult appropriate HR professionals.

ASOs often play critical roles as welcoming spaces where individuals with diverse lived experiences can access important services and programs, volunteer, work and contribute in meaningful ways. The OODP’s Substance Use Policy Guide & Template is a new and important tool for organizations to improve capacity to meaningfully involve people with lived experience of substance use in the effective delivery of all ASO services and programs.

Key content for the OODP’s Substance Use Policy Guide & Template was informed by: Harm Reduction at Work: A Guide for Organizations Employing People Who Use Drugs and Good Practice Guide for Employing People Who Use Drugs. In addition, critical contributions were provided by Nick Boyce, director of the Ontario Harm Reduction Network; Ann Maynard,  director of human resources at PIVOTAL Integrated HR Solutions, representing the Ontario AIDS Network’s Ontario Provincial Resources for ASOs in Human Resources program; and Richard Rainville, the executive director at Réseau ACCESS Network.


Murray Jose-Boerbridge, consultant for the Ontario Organizational Development Program (OODP), has been living with HIV and working and volunteering in community organizations in Ontario for close to 30 years. A key focus in his OODP consulting work involves supporting organizations to incorporate passionate sector principles, such as the valuing of lived experience, with strong day-to-day organizational policies and practices.  For more information visit


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