Pay it forward

Pay it forward is an expression for describing the beneficiary of a good deed repaying the kindness to others instead of to the original benefactor.

The concept is old, but the particular phrase may have been coined by Lily Hardy Hammond in her 1916 book In the Garden of Delight.[1] The phrase achieved significant popularization from Catherine Ryan Hyde's 1999 novel (and then movie) Pay It Forward.

"Pay it forward" is implemented in contract law of loans in the concept of third party beneficiaries. Specifically, the creditor offers the debtor the option of paying the debt forward by lending it to a third person instead of paying it back to the original creditor. This contract may include the provision that the debtor may repay the debt in kind, lending the same amount to a similarly disadvantaged party once they have the means, and under the same conditions. Debt and payments can be monetary or by good deeds. A related type of transaction, which starts with a gift instead of a loan, is alternative giving.


Paying forward was used as a key plot element in the denouement of a New Comedy play by Menander, Dyskolos (a title which can be translated as "The Grouch"). Dyskolos was a prizewinning play in ancient Athens in 317 BC; however, the text of the play was lost and it was only recovered and republished in 1957.

The oldest, and perhaps most basic pattern of this concept, is the inter-generational devotion of parents to their children, re-enacting what their own parents did for them. In her 1916 book In the Garden of Delight, Lily Hardy Hammond reflects, "I never repaid Great-aunt Letitia's love to her, any more than she repaid her mother's. You don't pay love back; you pay it forward."[1]

Regarding money, the concept was described by Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Benjamin Webb dated April 25, 1784:[2]

I do not pretend to give such a deed; I only lend it to you. When you [...] meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him; enjoining him to discharge the Debt by a like operation, when he shall be able, and shall meet with another opportunity. I hope it may thus go thro' many hands, before it meets with a Knave that will stop its Progress. This is a trick of mine for doing a deal of good with a little money.

Jesus, taught in Matthew 18:21-35. that paying it forward is a requirement for those who have received God's forgiveness. He told the parable of a man who had been forgiven a huge debt by the king, because the debtor had begged for mercy. However, after being freed from the debt, he found a fellow who owed him a very small debt, by comparison. Although, he had been shown a great mercy, he refused the same consideration to his fellow who had plead for more time to pay. When the king found this out, he was angry, and threw the original debtor into prison until he paid the entire debt. Jesus summarized the story by saying, "So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses"

Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his 1841 essay "Compensation",[3] wrote: "In the order of nature we cannot render benefits to those from whom we receive them, or only seldom. But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody." Woody Hayes (1913 – 1987), winner of five national titles as football coach at The Ohio State University, misquoted Emerson as having said "You can pay back only seldom. You can always pay forward, and you must pay line for line, deed for deed, and cent for cent." He also shortened the (mis)quotation into "You can never pay back; but you can always pay forward" and variants.[4][5]

The 1929 novel, Magnificent Obsession, by Lloyd C. Douglas, also espoused this philosophy, in combination with the concept that good deeds should be performed in confidence.

An anonymous spokesman for Alcoholics Anonymous said in The Christian Science Monitor in 1944, "You can't pay anyone back for what has happened to you, so you try to find someone you can pay forward."[6]

Also in 1944, the first steps were taken in the development of what became the Heifer Project, one of whose core strategies is "Passing on the Gift".[7]

The mathematician Paul Erdős heard about a promising math student unable to enroll in Harvard University for financial reasons. Erdős contributed enough to allow the young man to register. Years later, the man offered to return the entire amount to Erdős, but Erdős insisted that the man rather find another student in his situation, and give the money to him.[8]

It is also possible for the original beneficiary to become part of the later chain of kindness. Some time in 1980, a sixteen-page supplemental Marvel comic appeared in the Chicago Tribune entitled “What Price a Life?” and was subsequently reprinted as the backup story in Marvel Team-Up #126 dated February 1983. This was a team-up between Spider-Man and The Incredible Hulk, in which Spider-Man helps the Hulk escape from police who mistakenly thought that he was attacking them. Afterwards, they meet in their secret identities, with Peter Parker warning Bruce Banner to leave town because of the Hulk’s seeming attack on police. But Banner is flat broke, and cannot afford even bus fare. As a result, Parker gives Banner his last $5 bill, saying that someone had given him money when he was down on his luck, and this was how he was repaying that debt. Later, in Chicago, the Hulk confronts muggers who had just robbed an elderly retired man of his pension money, all the money he had. After corralling the muggers, the Hulk turns towards the victim. The retiree thinks that the Hulk is about to attack him as well, but instead, the Hulk gives him the $5 bill. It transpires that the very same old man had earlier given a down-on-his-luck Peter Parker a $5 bill.[9]

Robert Heinlein's contribution

The term "pay it forward" was popularized by Robert A. Heinlein in his book Between Planets, published in 1951:

The banker reached into the folds of his gown, pulled out a single credit note. "But eat first—a full belly steadies the judgment. Do me the honor of accepting this as our welcome to the newcomer."

His pride said no; his stomach said YES! Don took it and said, "Uh, thanks! That's awfully kind of you. I'll pay it back, first chance."

"Instead, pay it forward to some other brother who needs it."

Heinlein both preached and practiced this philosophy. Today, the Heinlein Society, a humanitarian organization founded in his name, practices it in the form of various programs such as blood drives, free educational CDs for teachers, and US$500 scholarships.[10] Author Spider Robinson made repeated reference to the doctrine, attributing it to his spiritual mentor Heinlein.[11]

Heinlein was a mentor to Ray Bradbury, giving him help and quite possibly passing on the concept, made famous by the publication of a letter from him to Heinlein thanking him. In Bradbury's novel Dandelion Wine, published in 1957, when the main character Douglas Spaulding is reflecting on his life being saved by Mr. Jonas, the Junkman:

How do I thank Mr. Jonas, he wondered, for what he's done? How do I thank him, how pay him back? No way, no way at all. You just can't pay. What then? What? Pass it on somehow, he thought, pass it on to someone else. Keep the chain moving. Look around, find someone, and pass it on. That was the only way....

Bradbury has also advised that writers he has helped thank him by helping other writers.

1999 novel, film and subsequent projects

In 1999, Catherine Ryan Hyde's novel Pay It Forward was published and then adapted in 2000 into a film of the same name, distributed by Warner Bros. and starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt and Haley Joel Osment. In Ryan Hyde's book and movie, it is described as an obligation to do three good deeds for others in response to a good deed that one receives. Such good deeds should accomplish things that the other person cannot accomplish on their own. In this way, the practice of helping one another can spread geometrically through society, at a ratio of three to one, creating a social movement with an impact of making the world a better place.

The Pay it Forward Movement and Foundation[12] was founded in the USA helping start a ripple effect of kindness acts around the world. The newly appointed president of the foundation, Charley Johnson, had an idea for encouraging kindness acts by having a Pay it Forward Bracelet[13] that could be worn as a reminder. Since then, over a million Pay it Forward bracelets have been distributed in over 100 countries sparking acts of kindness. Few bracelets remain with their original recipients, however, as they circulate in the spirit of the reciprocal or generalized altruism.

In 2007, International Pay It Forward Day[14] was founded in Australia by Blake Beattie. It has now spread to 70 countries with over 50 state and city proclamations. It is estimated that it has inspired over five million acts of kindness and has featured on 7, 9, 10, ABC, NBC, Fox 5, Fox 8 and Global News in Canada.

On April 5, 2012, WBRZ-TV, the American Broadcasting Company affiliate for the city of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, did a story on The Newton Project,[15] a 501(c)(3) outreach organization created to demonstrate that regardless of how big the problems of the world may seem, each person can make a difference simply by taking the time to show love, appreciation and kindness to the people around them. It is based on the classic pay-it-forward concept, but demonstrates the impact of each act on the world by tracking each wristband with a unique ID number and quantifying the lives each has touched. The Newton Project’s attempt to quantify the benefits of a Pay It Forward type system can be viewed by the general public at their website.

Inspired by John F. Kennedy who profoundly declared, "Let us think of education as the means of developing our greatest abilities, because in each of us there is a private hope and dream which, fulfilled, can be translated into benefit for everyone and greater strength for our nation", The Student Body of America Association,[16] a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, has initiated its Project Pay it Forward[17] program to implement education with the pay-it-forward concept.

Businesses have also adopted the concept as part of their corporate culture. Fargo, N.D.–based Bell Bank started a Pay It Forward program in 2007, inspired by Oprah Winfrey’s “Pay It Forward” project.[18] The program gives full-time employees $1,000 and part-time employees $500 each year to give to people and organizations in need.[19] Employees are also given $1,000 to give to a customer, vendor or community member to donate to someone else.[19] The program has given out more than $8 million so far.[20]

After launching the program, Michael Solberg, Bell Bank’s president and CEO, appeared on a number of news outlets to talk about it, including Good Morning America, CBS’s The Early Show, Fox News[18] and CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.[21]

Economic model

Several firms have adopted the pay it forward approach as an economic model. These include Karma Kitchen, where patrons' meals have already been paid for by previous customers, and customers are then encouraged to contribute toward future patrons' meals.[22] Heifer Project International pioneered the approach in sustainable development, and it has been utilized by microfinance lenders.[23] Some authors advocate the pay it forward approach be utilized as the primary means of economic transaction.[24] Such models have begun to be the topic of research.[25][26]

See also


  1. Hammond, Lily Hardy (1916). In the Garden of Delight. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co. p. 209. Archived from the original on October 7, 2012.
  2. Franklin, Benjamin (1917). Autobiography. Macmillan. p. 241. Retrieved 24 November 2017.
  3. Ralph Waldo Emerson, "Compensation", 1841 (text of Emerson essay)
  4. Greene, Bob. "You can always pay forward". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 24 November 2017.
  5. "Woody Hayes: Sport Motivational Advice from the Commencement Speech at Ohio State University". Retrieved 25 November 2017.
  6. "Group to Combat Alcoholism Grows Apace in Anonymity" The Christian Science Monitor, January 8, 1944; p. 3
  7. "Heifer International - Charity Ending Hunger And Poverty". Retrieved 14 July 2016.
  8. Hoffman, Paul (1998). The Man Who Loved Only Numbers. Fourth Estate. ISBN 978-1-85702-829-4.
  9. Sjoerdsma, Al. "Review of 'What Price a Life?'". Archived from the original on 12 November 2011. Retrieved 19 May 2019.
  10. "Pay It Forward". The Heinlein Society. Retrieved February 8, 2018. The most important aspect of Robert Heinlein’s legacy that we at The Heinlein Society support and adhere to is his concept of paying it forward.
  11. "The Heinlein Society".
  12. "HOME". Pay It Forward Foundation. Retrieved 14 July 2016.
  13. "Web hosting provider - - domain hosting - PHP Hosting - cheap web hosting - Frontpage Hosting E-Commerce Web Hosting Bluehost". Retrieved 14 July 2016.
  14. Pay It Forward Day
  15. "The Newton Project". Archived from the original on 11 January 2016. Retrieved 2018-01-31.CS1 maint: unfit url (link)
  16. "Home". Project Pay It Forward. 20 October 2013. Retrieved 14 July 2016.
  17. Forward, Project Pay It (20 October 2013). "Home". Retrieved 14 July 2016.
  18. The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, December 18, 2007
  19. Bush Foundation
  20. Northwestern Financial Review, June 1, 2016
  21. The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, January 10, 2008
  22. "About Karma Kitchen". Retrieved 12 January 2017.
  23. Nikolau, Lisa (11 April 2016). "Pay-it-forward model shows potential for microfinance in developing nations". Humanosphere. Retrieved 12 January 2017.
  24. Boyle, Mark (2013). The Moneyless Manifesto. Permanent Publications. ISBN 978-1856231015. Retrieved 12 January 2017.
  25. Theodore, Pemo (15 March 2010). "Pay it Forward Business Model". EZebis. Retrieved 12 January 2017.
  26. Jung, M. H.; Nelson, L. D.; Gneezy, A.; Gneezy, U. (September 2014). "Paying more when paying for others" (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 107 (3): 414–31. CiteSeerX doi:10.1037/a0037345. ISSN 1939-1315. PMID 25133724. Retrieved 12 January 2017.
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