Serial Reciprocity: Pay it Forward

Serial reciprocity is a series of sequential exchanges between parties. This set of exchanges is unique because they do not occur between two people in a closed quid pro quo arrangement. Instead, serial reciprocity is when people repay the benefits they have received - for example, from a parent, friend, mentor, anonymous stranger, or a previous generation - by providing benefits to a third party, someone other than their benefactor.


Reciprocity is defined as a mutual exchange (Agnes 2003). Serial reciprocity is exactly what one might expect - a series of sequential exchanges between parties. This set of exchanges is unique because they do not occur between two people in a closed quid pro quo arrangement. Instead, serial reciprocity is "when people repay the benefits they have received - for example, from a parent, friend, mentor, anonymous stranger, or a previous generation - by providing benefits to a third party, someone other than their benefactor" (Moody, 1994, 4).

Serial reciprocity differs from other forms of reciprocity because the original donor or volunteer does not receive anything tangible, measurable or immediate in return for his or her initial good deed. Philanthropic scholar Robert Payton explained serial reciprocity as, "the principle that says we should repay the good works done for us by the good works we, in turn, do for others" (Payton 1990, 1). Thus, in serial reciprocity, individuals "pay it forward" instead of paying it back.

Historic Roots

Philanthropic forms of reciprocity in one form or another have existed across time and place in both religious and social traditions. In Philanthropy in the World's Traditions, the reader learns about reciprocity in pre-colonial Africa, in Japan's practice of Confucian humaneness, and in the Native American spiritual tradition (Ilchman, Katz and Queen 1998). While reciprocity could not always be assumed or expected, and was at times a bit ambiguous and circumspect, such behavior has been present in various traditions, relationships, and transactions over time.

Economist Kenneth Boulding coined the term serial reciprocity in 1981. Touching very briefly on the idea in his book on grants economics, Boulding stated,

A very interesting aspect of reciprocity is what might be called serial reciprocity in which a gift from A to B creates a generalized sense of obligation on the part of B. This obligation is satisfied by a gift from B not to A but to another party C, who in turn satisfied his sense of obligation to another party D, and so on...

He noted that an important component of this type of reciprocity is that it occurs over time (Ilchman, Katz and Queen 1998, 31). That is, it relies on future, rather than present, action.

We have all given or received a gift at one time or another, and have found that at times "it is easier to give than to receive." Consequently, it is often important for the receiver to find a way of "paying back a gift." Many times, payback comes in the form of direct or indirect reciprocity through an exchange whereby the donor eventually experiences a return of some sort. At times, however, a reciprocal return may not be possible or welcomed. Take, for example, the idea of a "Good Samaritan" who performs a kind deed and subsequently disappears. Assuming that most humans have a desire to reciprocate - believing that one good deed deserves another - those who benefit from an action wish to reciprocate, return the favor, or repay a debt.

Serial reciprocity is a manner of responding to a gift, good deed, etc., but one that does not provide a tangible return to the original giver. People may reciprocate serially in this way for a variety of reasons. Perhaps it is not possible to give back directly because the original gift was anonymous or the donor is deceased or unreachable (Moody 1994, 9). Alternately, it may simply not appropriate to return the favor to the giver. Another possibility is that it is simply more meaningful, positive, and emotionally rewarding to "pass it on."

In the 2000 film Pay it Forward, a teacher asks his young students to fix what they don't like about the world. A student, Trevor, completes the assignment by helping three people. In return, he asks only that each individual help three more people, and request that they do the same. Trevor hopes to change the world one action at a time using the principle of serial reciprocity to begin an unending chain of positive events.

From donors who support student scholarships to foundations that award large grants and individuals who volunteer their time to help others, examples of serial reciprocity and its effect on the modern world are manifold. The idea itself is gaining momentum and is the subject of a novel, film, and has even inspired The Pay It Forward Foundation, meant to teach school children to use serial reciprocity to make change. While the term itself may remain unfamiliar to most Americans, the concept is apparent in numerous daily interactions between individuals.


In a 1990 essay entitled, "Voluntarism: Learning how to 'pass it on'", Robert Payton elaborated on Boulding's conception of serial reciprocity. For Payton, a well-known expert on philanthropy, "Serial reciprocity is at the heart of the philanthropic tradition." Serial reciprocity is of critical importance on three accounts. The first, and most obvious, is that it widens the circle of giving, allowing recipients to become givers by doing for another. Second, the deeds of these "new" philanthropists perpetuate philanthropic action and ensure its place in society. Finally, returning to Payton's essay, serial reciprocity is essential to the transmission of philanthropic values from one generation to the next. Without serial reciprocity, the ideals of philanthropy could stop short, becoming limited to closed exchanges and existing only in the present. The values of philanthropists would disappear as quickly as the gift or action did (Payton 1990).

Understanding the concept of serial reciprocity also illuminates philanthropic motives. Once one recognizes serial reciprocity and considers its implications, it becomes difficult to imagine daily life or philanthropy without it. Serial reciprocity provides an explanation and a rational for seemingly independent altruistic acts, making a necessary connection and rounding out the concept of philanthropic reciprocity (ibid.).

Key Related Ideas

Definitions of altruism in the modern day are characterized by a lack of concern for one's self. To behave altruistically is to engage in action motivated by concern for or interest in others without attention to one's self.

Selflessness involves acting with less concern for yourself than for the welfare of others.

Philanthropy means "gift of mankind" and is the result of wealthy and non-wealthy individuals giving their time, talent and treasure to improve the quality of life and the world as a way of "giving back."

Volunteering is also often done as a way to "give back," with individuals donating their time and expertise to other individuals and organizations in need.

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Kenneth Boulding: Boulding, an economist, coined the term serial reciprocity in his 1981 book, A Preface to Grants Economics.
  • Catherine Ryan Hyde: Hyde is a critically acclaimed novelist and award-winning short story writer of more than forty published stories, the novels Pay It Forward and Funerals for Horses, and the story collection Earthquake Weather.
  • Robert Payton: Payton is author of the seminal book, Voluntary Action for the Public Good (1988). In addition to this and other publications on philanthropy, he is a central figure in the development of philanthropic studies as a field of critical inquiry.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Council of Michigan Foundations has developed The Michigan Community Foundations' Youth Project. The Project encourages youth to become involved as decision makers and participants in the areas of volunteerism, philanthropy, and service learning (
  • Pay it Forward Foundation "educates and inspires young students to realize that they can change the world, and provide them with opportunities to do so." The foundation does this by encouraging children to begin a phenomenon of serial reciprocity by helping three people and asking those three people to help each help three other people and those people to help three more people and so on, ultimately forming an infinite chain of good deeds (
  • Random Acts of Kindness Foundation disseminates ideas and develops materials and programs with educators, students, community members, faith groups, service clubs, and others in an effort to incorporate kindness into thousands of schools and communities (

Related Web Sites

The Pay it Forward Movement's Web site, at, provides the Pay it Forward newsletter, a listing of media reports, and an opportunity for those "paying it forward" to share their stories.

The Payton Papers Web site, at, displays the writings of Robert L. Payton. Included is his essay on the transmission of philanthropic values via serial reciprocity, Voluntary Action for the Public Good, and numerous letters, articles, and essays.

The VolunteerMatch Web site at,, offers a free service for both organizations and volunteers to post and find positions by city, state, zip code and keyword.

Bibliography and Internet Sources

Agnes, Michael. Webster's New World Dictionary. John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2003. ISBN: 0743470699.

Boulding, Kenneth E. A Preface to Grants Economics. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1981. ISBN: 0534002927.

Ilchman, Warren F., Katz, Stanley N., and Edward L. Queen, eds. Philanthropy in the World's Traditions. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Moody, Michael. Pass it On: Serial Reciprocity as a Principle of Philanthropy. Essays on Philanthropy, No. 13. Indiana University Center on Philanthropy, 1994.

Pay it Forward Foundation. [cited 4 April 2004].

Pay it Forward Movement. [cited 4 April 2004].

Payton, Robert L. "Voluntarism: Learning How to 'Pass it on.'" Progressions vol.2, no. 2 (1990), 1-2. The Writings of Robert L. Payton. [cited 4 April 2004].

Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. [cited 4 April 2004].

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Indiana University at Bloomington. It is offered by Learning To Give and Indiana University at Bloomington.