Research Participant Incentives: The Pros and Cons of Gift Cards

Gift cards are a very popular method to provide compensation to research participants. However, did you know that they are one of the most restricted payment methods available? Some sponsors will not allow gift card purchases on their awards, and if they do, the University has very detailed policies for purchasing and tracking these pre-paid cards. Depending on the research population and study protocol, cash can be an alternative method for subject payment. Although this method also requires careful tracking, it can be a faster, easier and less cumbersome method for subject payment.

A few things to keep in mind when considering compensation for research participants:

  • Operational Advance:
    • If your sponsor allows the purchase of pre-paid cards with their funds, operational advance funds may be utilized to purchase prepaid cards/certificates for the purpose of distribution to participants for the mission of conducting University research. Prepaid cards/certificate should be purchased from an established business that will honor the card/certificate for a specified period of time. Prepaid card/certificate should contain no additional fees (i.e., Visa or American Express cards) or costs to the participant. It is highly recommended that prepaid cards/certificates be purchased in small increments based on anticipated usage/length of study as unused prepaid card/certificate may not be utilized to settle the Operational Advance funds. We have seen more than once a situation where a PI or study coordinator has purchased too many gift cards and enrollment estimates did not pan out. In this case, the PI must find another way to cover the cost of the purchased gift cards since study enrollment aims were not met. 
    • Instead of purchasing gift cards, the same funds you obtain through an operational advance can be held and distributed directly as cash payments to subjects. Many times, subjects prefer this. Payment is faster than waiting for a check, and gift cards - depending on the vendor - may not be easily used by your subjects. If your study does not involve in-person visits, then this may be a less advantageous option. However, this option allows you to retain the full value of the cash from your advance. Therefore, if enrollment targets are not met, you can deposit the cash easily back into your study account for reconciliation. 
  • Compensation amounts: Amounts over $50 require additional documentation from participants. One time cash equivalent (prepaid card/certificate) payments less than $50 do not require the University to collect a Social Security Number for tax purposes. However, one time or multiple cash equivalent ( certificate/card) exceeding $50 MUST obtain a Social Security Number and provide to central administration for potential tax reporting purposes.
  • Tracking: Always check with your business office regarding the documentation required for subject pay. Distribution of prepaid card/certificate must be logged either in an Operational Advance Expenditure Record found in eForms or other forms established by your department.  Any remaining cards/certificates after completion of the research study become the property of the Promissory note payee and may not be used to settle the advance.

More information regarding subject pay, operation advances and gift cards can be found in the following link to the FSO’s website:

Please contact our team for any questions on processing subject pay: Annet Mejia is our Principal Accountant for Clinical Trials at (520) 626-5301 and Danielle Gartner is our Post-Award Research Administrator at (520) 626-4801. 

Originally Posted: 
Wednesday, May 18, 2016 - 10:15am