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What Does "Pay It Forward" Mean?

Nicole Madison
Updated May 23, 2024
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Paying it forward is a third-party beneficiary concept that involves doing something good for someone in response to a good deed done on your behalf or a gift you received. When you pay it forward, however, you don't repay the person who did something nice for you. Instead, you do something nice for someone else. For example, if someone changes your tire while you are stranded on the highway, you might shovel your elderly neighbor's walkway after a snow has fallen.

The concept was popularized in modern times by a 2000 movie Pay It Forward, starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt. In this movie, a young boy, played by Haley Joel Osment, is given a school assignment that requires him to find some way to change the world. He develops the pay it forward concept, setting forth a chain reaction of good deeds.

Pay it forward

One of the most important things that people should remember about this concept is that it should be done with a selfless spirit. This means that one person helps another without hoping for repayment or good deeds in return. In fact, there are some organizations that allow people to pay it forward anonymously, donating money or performing good deeds without hoping for recognition. As far as the receiver of the money, gift, or good deed is concerned, he or she is told only to do something good for someone else.

The concept has a firm foundation in history. Ben Franklin described it in a letter he wrote to Benjamin Webb in 1784, in which he wrote about his intention to help Webb by lending him some money. He did not want to be repaid directly, however. Instead, Franklin hoped that Webb would at some point meet an honest man in need of financial help and pass the money along to him.

Paying it forward doesn't have to mean giving a large some of money or expending a lot of effort. It could be as simple as holding the door for someone laden with bags or giving up a place in line to someone who appears in a rush. It could even mean spending a little cash on coffee for the person behind you in line at a coffee house. For those who have money they can afford to give, there are always people in need, but even the smallest, free gestures can make a difference.

How To Pay It Forward at Work

Your job can be a great opportunity to get yourself and others involved in pay it forward activities. Paying it forward in the workplace builds trust and understanding among co-workers and fosters a positive work environment. Examples include:

  • Buying lunch or coffee for a co-worker
  • Volunteering to help with tasks
  • Leaving a personalized note on a co-worker's desk
  • Mentoring a less experienced co-worker
  • Complimenting a co-worker on something specific they've been working on

Paying it forward is all about paying attention to the people around you and lending a helping hand when it is needed. If you observe your co-workers and listen to their concerns, you will be able to spot great opportunities to pay it forward in the office.

Pay it forward

If you are a manager looking to implement a pay it forward initiative in your office, there are many positive events you could host, such as a "choose your charity" competition, a food drive or a company-sponsored yoga or wellness class. The possibilities are endless, and you can get creative in finding ways to encourage a pay it forward culture in the workplace.

How To Start a Pay It Forward Movement

Paying it forward feels great for you and the person you are helping, but how can you start a movement and get others to follow your lead?

Explain What You're Doing

It's important to mention the pay it forward concept when you are helping someone. The person may be surprised to see you doing a favor for them, and they may wonder if they should repay you in some way. You can help them understand where you're coming from by telling them you're paying it forward and encouraging them to do the same.

Spread the Word

If you want to start a movement at work or school, you can raise awareness of the concept by distributing flyers or sending a mass email explaining what it is, what people should expect and why people should get involved. You might be surprised by the number of people who respond positively to the pay it forward message. Many people want to do good and want to help others; they just need a small nudge in the right direction.

Be the Example

Most of all, you simply need to take action. Many people like the concept of paying it forward but are too shy to take the first step. If you reach out to that stranger and do something nice for them, it might be all you need to start a movement.

Why Pay It Forward Is Important

We live in a fast-paced and often chaotic world that may cause us to feel isolated and preoccupied with the details of our lives. Paying it forward is a great way to reach out and connect with a co-worker, peer or stranger in a meaningful way. It helps both the giver and receiver of the favor feel a greater sense of connection and belonging in society.

Paying it forward is also an exercise in empathy and selflessness. By encouraging the recipient of the favor not to pay you back and instead do something positive for someone else, you are making a conscious decision to value the lives of others without expecting a reward for yourself. Cultivating this attitude of empathy and selflessness can enrich your life and the lives of those around you.

The best part of paying it forward is that it's a chain reaction. Every person who receives a favor feels inspired to pay it forward, and all of the positive effects of the process are transferred to each new person who chooses to participate. Imagine the sum total of favors and lifted spirits that could result from one small gesture of kindness!

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a Language & Humanities writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.
Discussion Comments
By anon1001177 — On Mar 20, 2019

Simple truths for living and making the world better.

Jesus said, "It is better to give than to receive" and "Treat others the way you would like to be treated."

By anon996454 — On Sep 02, 2016

Post 17/anon353795 is correct: The Golden Rule is not synonymous with "paying it forward"; it is more expansive. "Paying it forward" is predicated upon you already having received of a good turn; it is reactive. The Golden Rule ('All things that you *want* men to do to you, you also must do to them') is proactive; it requires you to practice (Note: practice -- "All things" -- not random acts) the kindness you would wish to receive. "Be the good you want to see," is basically a reiteration. ("Paying it forward" instead suggests, "Be the good you see.")

By anon971740 — On Sep 29, 2014

It kind of makes me sad. I'm old enough to remember when people did good deeds for strangers because this was a Christian nation and people knew about Christianity and lived by Christian principles. Now it appears that people are ignorant and misinformed about the Bible and Christianity, and yet repackaged Christian principles espoused by a movie seem good and novel to them.

By anon353795 — On Nov 02, 2013

"Pay it forward" is not synonymous with "the golden rule", as anon351676 suggests.

By anon351676 — On Oct 15, 2013

It is a biblical teaching and one of the greatest commandments in the holy bible: "love your neighbor as yourself and do him/her no harm"

By OeKc05 — On Feb 23, 2013

I have told strangers to pay it forward before after I've done something to help them. A few of them have given me puzzled looks, so I had to explain the pay it forward idea to them. Once they got it, a light really came on in their eyes, and they agreed it was a good thing.

By kylee07drg — On Feb 22, 2013

@seag47 – I understand what you mean. I've been stranded when my car broke down before, and just feeling the relief when someone stopped to help get it running again inspired me to always help others who are in need, because I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end.

The pay it forward concept is great, because it doesn't always have to be something that you actively set out to do. Just being the recipient of a kind deed can motivate you to be the kind person in the future.

By seag47 — On Feb 21, 2013

I've been inspired by acts of kindness from other people toward me. I never consciously think about how to pay it forward, but their kind acts put me in the mood to do something nice for someone else.

By healthy4life — On Feb 20, 2013

I realize that this concept has been around for decades, but it wasn't until I saw the “Pay it Forward” movie that I really became aware of it. I think that many people in America could say the same.

It was one of those rare times when a Hollywood movie actually set a good example for other people to follow. There is usually so much focus on violence and sex, so it was refreshing to see a movie with a good idea in it that could spread among many people.

By anon275651 — On Jun 19, 2012

Pay it forward is just a confusing way to tell someone to "Pass it on". Using the tire changing example, the recipient of the tire change says, "How can I thank you?", and is told "Just pass it on." This concept has been around for umpteen years.

By anon261627 — On Apr 16, 2012

Good definition! And 134839, excellent point. Makes me crazy when someone uses this term when they are getting paid. How twisted is it to use it in that context!

By anon134839 — On Dec 16, 2010

Excellent definition. I would only add, that you don't "pay it forward" if you receive compensation for your act. Unfortunately, too many people are using that phrase incorrectly because they are getting paid for "paying it forward."

By anon127009 — On Nov 14, 2010

Thank you, i will use your explanation in the letter I'm drafting for the parents in my school, as we have adopted this concept this Christmas. God bless!

By anon89221 — On Jun 09, 2010

your explanation blew my mind.

By anon87575 — On May 31, 2010

Very clear and helpful explanation. Thank you!

By anon35547 — On Jul 06, 2009

your suggestion is not exactly the meaning of pay it forward......

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a Language & Humanities writer, where she focuses on topics like...
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