Inventory Control at SSPs

There are a variety of ways that SSPs do inventory control, from informal to more structured.

Most accurate methods require carefully counting all of the supplies provided to participants for:

  • a set period of time (say a week or two), at
  • a variety of points in time during the year (because drug use, and therefore supply needs, often change throughout the year), and
  • in all locations where the organization provides services (because drug use and supply needs also vary by geographic location).

Many SSPs attempt to always keep a careful count, however the reality is that data occasionally gets lost or forgotten in the rush to provide services so picking periods to pay special attention to inventory ensures the most accurate results.

Dedicated Counting

Dedicated counting can give an organization a sense of the average number of supplies necessary for each location for a specific period. This allows organizations to calculate overall inventory needs by multiplying average demand for a set period (for example 1 week) by the total for the year (52 weeks a year). For example, let’s say an SSP did inventory one week a month for 6 months and found that, on average, they needed 1000 27g 5/8s and 2000 30g 1/2 syringes per week at site A and 1000 27g 5/8s and 3000 30g 1/2 syringes per week at site B. This means they would need:

2000 27g 5/8 X 52= 104,000 @ 1000 per case/$150 per case = $15,600
5000 30g 1/2 X 52= 260,000 @ 1000 per case/$150 per case = $39,000

If their budget was too small to support the full community need with proper inventory management, they could place modest caps on how many supplies were provided so that their participants would not be left without supplies at the end of the funding period. This also gives programs the ability to clearly explain those caps to participants, transparency which helps to empower participants and alleviate potential community tensions.

Comparison Method

Another method is the comparison method, where programs identify what they have ordered versus what they have on hand after a set period of time (say a week or month). One way to do this is to wait for an order to come in for something you are completely out of and then see how many of those supplies are left after a set period of time.

Week-to-week or Month-to-Month Stock on Hand

Another method is to do inventory counts of stock on hand once every set period (say each month) and use an average of those counts to calculate how much is needed for a year and, again, use a comparison to the supply budget to calculate how much to order each month.

Line on the Wall

The final method is the “line on the wall” method developed by Shiloh Jama when he was at the People’s Harm Reduction Alliance (PHRA) in Seattle, WA. This method is very simple but only available to programs with a fixed storage location. It evolved by initially using more traditional counting methods to determine how many syringes of each size they needed for an average week.

Shiloh was armed with the knowledge that his suppliers normally take two weeks to a month to ship supplies, so he made two marks on the wall of his storage space for each supply type. One mark was at the height and width the stacked boxes occupied when he had a month’s worth of supplies, and one at the height and width when he had two weeks’ worth of supplies. When the lines appear, PHRA knows it is time to reorder.

The limitations of this method are that it doesn’t help programs who may have a variable or limited supply budget and it does not lend itself to fluid recalibration in the face of a changing drug scene. It does have the very real benefit of being a passive method that allows overworked harm reductionists a “no-brain” method of ensuring they always have supplies on hand. Its inventor encourages programs to adopt and adjust this method to their needs.

Used Sharps Accounting

Despite the move away from one-for-one exchange in favor of evidence-based syringe distribution, most SSPs must still account for the used syringes that are surrendered to them. Though there are several ways to do this, here are some of the most common:

  • Literal Count – this is the most exhaustive and time-consuming method. It requires participants to literally count each syringe in front of staff. Some programs allow participants to bundle syringes in groups of 10 or 20 to speed up dropping them off.
  • The Container Method – a method perfected by the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction (HACHR) in Humboldt, CA. Volunteers stuffed a variety of containers with syringes to see how many would fit – both official sharps containers they distribute to participants and other containers participants frequently brought sharps back in (like soda and bleach bottles). They then record that number each time they receive a container of that style.
  • Self-Report – perhaps the easiest method is to simply rely on participant self-report to determine how many used syringes they are turning in to the SSP. This has the added benefit of helping to build trust with participants by giving trust to them first.

In addition to these methods, many leaders gave the advice that one of the best tools for getting used syringes turned in was to simply turn your participants into empowered allies by telling them about demands or push-back their program is receiving from communities because of concerns about improper sharps disposal and requesting their help in reducing it by turning in used supplies.

Inventory Control and Management

In traditional for-profit businesses, inventory control helps control costs and track “shrinkage” (theft). These are not concerns for most harm reduction programs so one unexpected finding from the Hacks conversations with harm reduction leaders is how concerned leaders are with inventory control and management. However, as these leaders explained, good inventory management is about knowing how much inventory you have, when to order more, what price to buy it at, and, perhaps most importantly for SSPs, it allows them to meter out supplies – balancing participant demand and available funds and supplies in such a way that it ensures there are always some supplies available.

The good news about inventory management is that it can be easy and saves an organization time and money by giving them a better sense of when and what supplies to order. Perhaps most importantly, it can also save their participants from going without the supplies they need because of mismanaged inventory. The risks of not doing it include creating unnecessary stress, tension, or confusion, or even damaging an organization’s reputation with participants.

The only bad news about inventory control is that someone actually needs to do it in order for it to be effective.

Vending and Events

Nonprofits can sell both goods and services to support the mission of their organization. Selling tee-shirts and other swag at conferences and holding rock shows in people’s backyards are time-honored traditions in the harm reduction community that organizations undertake to provide themselves with unrestricted funds and promote their mission and brands.

Both events and sales are great because they generate fully unrestricted funds, which organizations can use for anything they need. They also build the organization’s brand, reputation, and reach. At the same time, events and sales take time away from the core mission and they may take a fair amount of overhead with no guarantee of a return on investment.

The pros of selling merchandise are that it can always be available, and it ensures that your name visibly gets out into the community. The downsides are storage and shipping and the time that both will take. Organizations can choose to have a “print on demand” virtual store that eliminates the issues with storage and shipping, but the companies that run virtual stores often take most of the profit margin.

Events, on the other hand, can generate a large amount of revenue in one day or evening but they often take an enormous amount of work and significant up-front expenses. Some of this can be mitigated by asking smaller, local businesses for support. These businesses may not be able to offer cash but may be happy to give a gift certificate that could act as a silent auction item or reward for donations. Be careful about raffles, bingo games, or any games of chance. They are often lucrative but they have especially intense state and federal tax and legal implications and obligations you should know about before you try.


Ordering supplies for services is an on-going process that starts with inventory control which allows an organization to have a better idea of how many supplies they need and when they will be needed.

Although SSPs order from a wide variety of vendors, the primary harm reduction and safer sex suppliers in the US are:

Some of the tips that were offered by harm reduction leaders for setting up and/or simplifying ordering are:

  • Centralize – both create a central location for order forms (either online or physically), and use a single payment method and/or a single place in time (like every Wednesday or every-other Friday) to help keep ordering and accounting clear.
  • Create a process (“proceduralize”) and USE IT – centralization dovetails neatly with another main suggestion from leaders about ordering: “proceduralize” that is, create a formal procedure for ordering and stick to it.
  • Rotate ordering – where appropriate, rotating this duty between staff members can help with both cross-training and sharing the burden.
  • Know your vendors – get to know your vendors, what they carry, and how their ordering and shipping work.
  • Flex NPO privilege – if you are an independent 501(c)3 be sure and get your sales tax exemption.
  • Check orders against what is received – ALWAYS double check your orders and make sure you got what you paid for.

Tips for Creating Budgets for Grants and Requests

One of the biggest mistakes harm reduction organizations make in applications for funding is that their proposals contain common budgeting errors. Major issues funders say they see include:

  • Not including sufficient funding for overhead/admin/indirect costs. Funders understand that it costs money to run a business and expect that some of their money will be allocated for that purpose.
  • Not allocating a sufficient percentage for fringe benefits for employees.
  • Giving too much detail about administrative costs.
  • Giving insufficient information/detail on program costs.
  • Skipping parts of budgets/not having complete budgets.
  • Not using forms provided by the funder.

Tips for Writing Grants, Requests and Requests for Proposals

Here are some of the best practice tips from harm reduction and other nonprofit leaders on how to write grant proposals and other funding requests:

  • Open the application or RFP as soon as you get it – Harm reduction leaders can tell many horror stories about getting an application and not opening it until too late in the process to acquire essential components such as letters of support or audit records. Avoid this by opening and reading the application right away.
  • Make a plan – Once you have read the application, make a plan for when you will work on it – and stick to it. Note that your plan should include who you will need to contact for specific information, letters of support, dates for various editors, and so on.
  • Research the funder – Make sure to research the funder to determine who they have supported in the past, for how much, and what their particular focus is. Let that information inform how you write your request.
  • Don’t procrastinate – Do not put off gathering your data/materials and writing until two days before your application is due – it will only make you miserable.
  • Decide on who and what you need – When you begin writing, figure out who you’re writing for and what you need from them or hope to get out of their funding for the community you serve.
  • Make a skeleton – Make an outline before you start writing.
  • Be brief – Keep brevity in mind with your writing and try to edit yourself.
  • Use bullet points where appropriate – Bullet points make your writing easy to read and help keep it succinct. They also make reviewing your application easier.
  • Make a template/use old applications – To save time, write a formal program plan and use it and/or old applications to help you flush out current applications. Be sure and update any information and statistics.
  • Illustrate your points with stories – Where possible and appropriate, use anecdotes to illustrate your point. Data can be dry and abstract while stories offer details for people to connect to.
  • Make sure to follow instructions – Don’t make the common mistake of forgetting to thoroughly double check all of the instructions.
  • Use another set of eyes – Have another staff person, board member, or colleague you trust read through, review, and edit your writing. For very small programs this is an excellent task for board members.

Researching Funding Opportunities

Because foundation grants and government awards are the largest sources of income for SSPs, it is vital that every SSP knows about the two best places to research them.

For private foundation and corporate grants, the best source is Candid’s Foundation Directory. The directory includes a massive index of nearly all of these institutions in the US. To access the directory, you must either pay for membership or access it through a library.

For government funds, the best source is the aptly named which features thousands of US government grants as well as information on how to apply.

Corporate Gifts

A final category of funding available to SSPs are corporate gifts. There are many kinds of corporate giving including:

  • Grants – direct contributions given by corporations, often handled internally.
  • Community grants – which are often handled by a foundation established by the corporation and generally given to organizations in and around the places the company is physically located.
  • Employee volunteer grants – where employers give to places their employees volunteer.
  • Employee matching grants – businesses match donations that their employees make.
  • Employee volunteer programs – businesses pay employees for the time they spend volunteering.
  • Sponsorship – where businesses essentially advertise themselves by paying for an event or charitable work.
  • In-kind donations – businesses donate goods in lieu of money.
  • Pro-bono work – businesses donate services in lieu of money.

Harm reduction organizations have occasionally received all these forms of corporate giving. It may come as no surprise that harm reduction agencies have had especially good luck with pharmaceutical- and healthcare-related industries and small businesses in their home areas.

Goods and Services

Nonprofit organizations are legally able to start and run for-profit businesses – selling both goods and services, as long as those businesses do not overtake the organization’s mission. Nonprofits sell everything from second-hand toilets to fresh baked cakes and provide services ranging from IT to professional lawn and garden care.

With a few exceptions, harm reduction organizations have limited their business endeavors to tee-shirts, tote bags, and the occasional nude calendar.

Individual Donors

Although a great deal of nonprofit funding comes from goods, services, and government sources, individuals are the greatest source of contributions to nonprofits, making up 6980% of donations received.

However, this is often not true of harm reduction organizations, which is a circumstance that they can change. Because individual donations are unrestricted funds, SSPs are strongly encouraged to develop individual donors using some of the strategies from the Best Practices in the Hacks.


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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