format_list_bulleted Topic Overview

Categories of Purchases

A range of goods and services are purchased to support the university's goals and mission. Below are the common categories of purchases, definitions, and links to more guidance. While all purchases must be in alignment with established purchasing policies and guidelines, certain categories of purchases, such as capital purchases or other special goods or services, require additional actions or specific purchasing methods.

Goods are generally defined as tangible items such as supplies, materials or equipment. Commonly purchased goods at the university include office supplies and research or lab materials. Certain goods should be purchased through pre-negotiated supplier relationships available through the university’s catalog ordering systems (i.e., SmartMart Catalog Suppliers)  to ensure the best pricing and terms. In addition, some goods require special consideration or treatment to ensure regulatory and compliance needs are met.

The Purchase Goods page provides the recommended purchasing method and related guidance for:

  • Capital equipment 
  • Office and home office equipment and furnishings
  • Office supplies
  • Computers, printers and software
  • Lab, life science, research or medical supplies
  • Stanford-branded merchandise

Services are generally defined as a transaction where work or action is performed and there may not be a physical good involved. At the broadest level, this includes labor, maintenance, consulting, business services, and venue or facility rentals. Some services require special consideration or treatment to ensure regulatory and compliance needs are met.

The Purchase Services page provides the recommended purchasing method and related guidance for:

  • Professional services, performed by an independent contractor or consultant, including the following:
    • Proofreading/Editing/Copywriting/Publishing/Indexing Services
    • Graphic Design/Branding/Illustration Services
    • Transcription/Translation Services
    • Video/Photography Services 
    • Equipment Repair
    • Legal Services
  • Temporary staffing services
  • Speaker or participant honorarium
  • Cloud services
  • Website or application development
  • Shipping, freight, and import services
  • Advertising on social media network
  • Moving and relocation
  • Event venues and catering
  • Lab-coat laundering
  • Commissioned work
  • Construction services

A subaward is when a portion of Stanford's sponsored project is passed through to another entity in order to complete a portion of the sponsored project's scope of work. It does not include payments to a contractor or payments to an individual that is a beneficiary of a program.

Subawards are administered by the Office of Research Administration (ORA) but payments are made using iProcurement Purchase Orders. For information, refer to Subawards at the Office of Research Administration

The university pays directly or reimburses individuals for expenses that are necessary and appropriate to conduct university business. Expenditures must be consistent with the university’s purchasing policies and guidelines as well as the guiding principles and IRS regulations with regard to Business and Travel Expense policies. To review the policies and resources associated with business and travel expenses, visit the Topic Overview: Business and Travel Expense Policies.

Travel Bookings and Expenses

In order to be able to more effectively support university travelers, Stanford requires the use of a centralized travel booking program (Stanford Travel) when faculty, staff, postdoctoral scholars and students are booking airfare for university-sponsored travel unless it is specifically exempted from the booking policy. Travelers may also use Stanford Travel when booking hotels and rental cars for university-sponsored travel.

Some types of travel, such as visitor or group travel, are exempt from this booking policy and may be booked outside of Stanford, as long as it is within business expense guidelines.

Stanford Travel automatically sends booking updates to the registry when itineraries change, supports compliance with reimbursement policies and procedures and offers discounts, waivers, and perks to travelers. Considering these benefits, booking a hotel through Stanford Travel remains the preferred booking option wherever possible.

Complete booking policy details can be found on the Topic Overview: Business and Travel Expense Policies.

Types of Business Expenses

Common types of business expenses include business and travel meals, lodging, transportation, conference and training fees, and employee morale. These and additional common types are covered in more detail in the Topic Overview: Other Business Expenses.

Note: Per the updated gift policy as of July 20, 2023, for non work-related (e.g, birthdays and holidays) departments may purchase an occasional gift for an employee valued up to $100 per individual per calendar year. This is an increase from the prior amount of $50. Any amount that does not exceed the aggregate value of $100 over the course of the calendar per individual will be non-taxable. Per Administrative Guide Memo 2.2.10: Gifts and Awards for University Employees, at the discretion of each department or school, gifts or awards may be made to university employees for non-performance related recognition, such as to acknowledge years of service or celebrate retirement. The expense of such gifts or awards must come from appropriate university funds and comply with guidelines such as when gifts need to be reported as taxable income to the employee.

Types of Gifts

  • Service milestone gifts may be made to university employees for non-performance related recognition, such as to acknowledge years of service or celebrate retirement. Per AGM 2.2.10, the current annual non taxable limit for these gifts is $400 a year, and the amount should be commensurate with years of service.
  • Other occasional gifts, as long as they are not related to performance recognition, such as for birthdays and holidays, have a lower non-taxable limit and are referred to as nominal gifts and have a limit of $100 per individual per calendar year.

Some high level guidance for employee gifts includes:

  • Gifts for regular employees (50% full time equivalent, FTE, or more) should be occasional and non-recurring.
  • For employee service or appreciation gifts, purchases of Stanford-branded merchandise or other tangible items, including food, is recommended by the university over the use of gift cards.
  • Faculty retirement awards: Faculty members with more than five years of service are eligible to receive an award from the university upon retirement or departure from the university to recognize their service and contribution. (Faculty members do not participate in the staff five-year incremental length-of-service award.) For retirement awards to be nontaxable to the recipient, they must meet the five-year service requirement and the award must be presented in a meaningful presentation or ceremony.  The value of a retirement or departure award should not exceed $400 in the taxable year and the cost of the award should be commensurate with the number of years of service being recognized. Any award that does not meet the IRS requirements will be taxable income to the recipient. Such awards must be coded to the ‘Employee Gift - Taxable’ expenditure type and the employee’s name and Employee ID Number should be included in the business purpose for the transaction.
  • Gifts cannot be in lieu of compensation for services performed or extra earnings, i.e., overtime pay or retroactive pay. Gifts should not be given for assuming additional duties while another employee is on leave or for a vacant position. In these instances, managers should consider the bonus & incentive program and have a conversation with the school or unit human resources manager to determine the appropriate option.

To review the policies and resources associated with business expenses, visit the Topic Overview: Business and Travel Expense Policies.

Gift card purchases should always be in support of an identified university business purpose. Gift cards, including electronic gift cards, can be used for human subject payments, employee length of service or appreciation gifts, conference meals, and event or research study prizes. Stanford-branded merchandise or other tangible items, including food, are highly recommended instead of gift cards for employee service or appreciation gifts.

Refer to the following university policies:

Tax Implications

All gift cards (including those to businesses like Starbucks, Safeway) for any amount are taxable from the first dollar, even when given as employee gifts. The university encourages departments to shift toward the purchase of tangible goods, especially Stanford-branded merchandise. This removes the tax burden for the recipient and, to the extent that Stanford-branded merchandise is selected, helps to create positive associations with Stanford as an employer.

Tax reporting guidance:

  • For employees: Provide recipient details (full name and employee id) with the Expense Request or Pcard transaction and use the taxable gift expenditure type.
  • For human subjects: When gift cards are used as a payment, for example, to human subjects, they are treated as taxable income. Follow guidance on Paying Human Subjects to appropriately tax report in these instances. 
Purchasing Methods

It is recommended that purchases of gift cards of a total amount less than $5,000 be made using a Purchasing Card (PCard). Other methods of purchasing gift cards for university business include using personal funds and getting reimbursed through an expense report, requesting an advance or a non-PO payment request. Please note that Stanford’s Amazon Business account does not support the purchasing of gift cards.

Refer to the table below for specific gift card use cases and appropriate purchasing methods. 

Gift Card Use Case Stanford Purchasing Card (PCard) Expense Requests - Expense Report Expense Requests - Advance Expense Requests - Non PO Payment
Human Subject Payments - Visitors Yes Yes Yes N/A - used for direct human subject payments only.
Human Subject Payments - Employees Stanford Payroll is the preferred method. Contact the department HR Manager.
Employee Gifts (service awards and appreciation) Yes Yes No No
Gift Card Best Practices 

To safeguard university assets, the following best practices are recommended when purchasing and stewarding gift cards:

  • Tracking: Track all gift card recipients and include the name of recipient and amount received in backup documentation to be stored locally and attached to applicable transactions. This enables purchasing traceability and alignment with financial stewardship expectations. 
  • Documentation: For Human Subject gift card payments, attach the Human Subject Incentive Certification Form to the transaction as backup documentation. Doing so ensures accurate record-keeping, traceability and transactional integrity. 
  • Timing: Process transactions accurately and within a timely manner to ensure that the purchase is properly applied  to the PTA that was charged.
  • Support: Contact the Financial Support Center for assistance. 
Gift Card Purchases Exceeding $5,000

There are occasions when departments need to purchase gift cards in bulk for later distribution to individuals, such as for Human Subjects participating in forthcoming research studies. When purchasing bulk gift cards totaling $5,000 or more, departments may use an iProcurement Non-catalog Requisition

Storage of large purchases of gift cards presents a risk to the university. Gift cards must be appropriately secured and tracked in the same manner as cash. Departments must ensure proper local controls are in place for dual custody of the gift cards, throughout the purchasing, storage and distribution processes.

Optional Gift Card Supplier - Blackhawk Network Inc (formerly OmniCard)

There are many programs available for departments to purchase gift cards in bulk. Procurement Services has worked with Blackhawk Network Inc to support bulk purchases of gift cards. Departments may contact the Stanford Account Manager, Alexandra Cobb, to request a purchase quote and to receive login credentials for the Hawk Marketplace website. To process payment for the order, departments should create an iProcurement Non-catalog Requisition

A lease agreement (sometimes referred to as a "rental agreement") is established when Stanford funds are used to rent, borrow or use an asset for a specific period of time greater than one month.

Real Estate

Real Estate Leases are contracts under which a lessee has committed to stipulated cash payments for the use of real estate for a specific period of time. Real Estate leases are considered long-term financial obligations of the university. Refer to Real Estate Leases for more information. Leases cannot be established using a PCard.


An equipment lease is considered the commitment to pay for the use of an asset for longer than one year, with total contracted cash payments over the term of the lease of $5,000 or greater. Refer to Equipment Leases for more information.

Last Updated: Aug 2, 2023