The expression “pay it forward” is used to describe the concept of asking the beneficiary of a good deed to repay it to others instead of to the original benefactor. The concept is old, but the phrase may have been coined by Lily Hardy Hammond in her 1916 book In the Garden of Delight.
“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 athird person instead of paying it back to the original creditor. Debt and payments can be monetary or by good deeds. A related type of transaction, which starts with a gift instead of a loan, isalternative giving.
The concept was used as a key plot element in the denouement
of a New Comedy
play by Menander
(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 not re-published until 1957.
I do not pretend to give
such a Sum; 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.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
, in his 1841 essay Compensation
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.”
In 1916, Lily Hardy Hammond wrote, “You don’t pay love back; you pay it forward.”
(February 14, 1913 – March 12, 1987) was a college football coach who is best remembered for winning five national titles and 13 Big Ten championships in 28 years at The Ohio State University
. He 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.
The 1929 novel, Magnificent Obsession
, by Lloyd C. Douglass, 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.”
Also in 1944, the first steps were taken in the development of what became Heifer Project
, one of whose core strategies is “Passing on the Gift”.
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; now the Heinlein Society
, a humanitarian organization founded in his name, does so. Author Spider Robinson
made repeated reference to the doctrine, attributing it to his spiritual mentor Heinlein.
The concept appears in the novel Dandelion Wine
by Ray Bradbury
, 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.
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.
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. So, 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’d 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. Turns out that the old man was the same person who’d earlier given a down-on-his-luck Peter Parker a $5 bill.
In 2000, Catherine Ryan Hyde
‘s novel Pay It Forward
was published and adapted into a Warner Brothers
film, Pay It Forward
. 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.
To further promote the pay it forward idea, university student Christopher Lo was inspired to create The Karma Seed service and website in 2010 after he unexpectedly regained a lost video camera due to the kindness of a stranger. A “Karma Seed” is a small, plastic card with a unique number and directions for accessing the website. If you perform a favor for someone, you can pass them a Karma Seed card, ask them to check the card in online, and request that they pass the card onto someone else after doing a good deed for them in “pay it forward” fashion. Any recipient or giver of a Karma Seed can go the website and see a history of the good deeds affiliated with the card.
The Karma Seed is an LLC
company that contributes 50% of profits to The Karma Seed Foundation to support social projects in the geographic area of Washington University in St. Louis
The Pay it Forward Movement and Foundation
was founded in the USA helping start a positive ripple effect of kindness acts in many places 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
that could be worn as a reminder. Since then, over a million Pay it Forward bracelets have been distributed in over 100 countries sparking some amazing acts of kindness. Few bracelets remain with their original recipients, however, as they circulate in the spirit of the reciprocal or generalized altruism.
On April 5th 2012, WBRZ, a Louisiana affiliate of ABC NEWS, did a story on The Newton Project
, 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 http://www.TheNewtonProject.com