Serial Reciprocity: Pay it Forward

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Act of Generosity
Pay it Forward
Serial Reciprocity
Serial reciprocity is a social and philanthropic concept that defines how individuals indirectly reciprocate charitable acts. Often coined as “paying it forward” or “passing it on,” serial reciprocity takes the form of a linear sequence of voluntary, selfless exchanges between people.



Reciprocity: mutual dependence, action, or influence (Merriam-Webster)

Serial Reciprocity: a type of indirect reciprocity resulting in a linear sequence of exchanges between parties. These exchanges are 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... by providing benefits to a third party, someone other than their benefactor" (Burlingame, 2004). 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 their initial good deed.

Philanthropy: voluntary action for the public good. Often demonstrated by individuals by giving their time, talent, and money to improve the lives of others and the world around them as a way of "giving back" (Payton 1990).

Historic Roots

Forms of reciprocity have existed across time and place in both religious and social traditions. The book Philanthropy in the World's Traditions details reciprocity in pre-colonial Africa, the Native American spiritual tradition, and the Japanese practice of Confucian humaneness (Ilchman, Katz and Queen 1998). While reciprocity could not always be assumed and was at times ambiguous, such behavior has been present in various traditions and relationships over time.

Economist Kenneth Boulding coined the term serial reciprocity in 1981. He noted that an essential component of this type of reciprocity is that it occurs over time (Ilchman, Katz, and Queen 1998). That is, it relies on future rather than present action.

Serial reciprocity has existed for centuries informally, and while the term is unfamiliar to many, the concept is apparent in many everyday interactions between individuals. From donors who support scholarships to foundations that make grants to individuals who volunteer their time to help others, examples of serial reciprocity abound. The idea itself is gaining momentum and has been the subject of a novel and film, and spurred a social movement that led to the creation of the Pay It Forward Foundation, which encourages acts of kindness toward strangers.


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, 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).


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

It is common to receive a gift and subsequently want to find a way of "paying back” the person who was so generous to us. It is often because of this reciprocity that people engage in altruistic behavior and acts of kindness (Burlingame, 2004).

At times, however, a standard reciprocal return may not be possible or welcomed. Serial reciprocity is a response to philanthropy that does not provide a tangible return to the original giver. People may reciprocate 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). Alternately, it may not be appropriate to return the favor to the giver. Another possibility is that it is more meaningful, positive, and emotionally rewarding to "pass it on," as “caring is like a chain, linking people together as they receive help from one direction and give help in another direction” (Wuthnow 1995).

“Serial reciprocity is at the heart of the philanthropic tradition" (Payton 1990) and speaks to the incredible sense of gratitude that so many donors feel when they make gifts to causes they care about. Serial reciprocity provides an explanation and a rationale for seemingly independent altruistic acts, making a necessary connection between gratitude and action. Recognizing serial reciprocity and considering its implications, it becomes difficult to imagine daily life or philanthropy without it.

Key Related Ideas

  • Altruism: engaging in action motivated by regard for others.
  • Selflessness: acting with concern for the welfare of others instead of yourself.
  • Volunteering: often a way to "give back." Individuals and groups donate their time and expertise to other individuals and organizations in need.
  • Random Acts of Kindness: spontaneous acts designed to benefit other people, often strangers.

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Kenneth Boulding: an economist who coined the term serial reciprocity in his 1981 book, A Preface to Grants Economics.
  • Catherine Ryan Hyde: a critically acclaimed novelist and award-winning short-story writer, author of the novel Pay It Forward, and founder of the Pay It Forward Foundation.
  • Andrew Carnegie: an American businessman and philanthropist who contributed millions of dollars to build thousands of public libraries in the U.S. and abroad. This was an act of serial reciprocity- an expression of gratitude for the access he had to a private library when he was a teenager (Burlingame, 2004).

Related Nonprofit Organizations

Michigan Community Foundations' Youth Project (MCFYP): encourages youth to become involved as decision-makers and participants in the areas of volunteerism, philanthropy, and service-learning. (

Pay It Forward Foundation: encourages individuals to begin a phenomenon of serial reciprocity by helping three people and asking those three people to help each help three other people and so on, ultimately forming an infinite chain of good deeds. Inspired by the film of the same name. (

Random Acts of Kindness Foundation: disseminates ideas and develops materials and programs with educators, students, community members, faith groups, service clubs, and others to incorporate kindness into thousands of schools and communities. (


Reflection Question

  • Identify how someone has done something that has made your life better.
  • How can you do something for someone else this week that will make their life better?
  • Include in your answer details of how this action will be altruistic or selfless.


  • Boulding, Kenneth E. A Preface to Grants Economics. New York: Praeger Publishers, 1981.
  • Burlingame, Dwight, ed. Philanthropy in America: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia [3 volumes]. ABC-CLIO, 2004.
  • 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.
  • Payton, Robert L. "Voluntarism: Learning How to 'Pass it on.'" Progressions vol.2, no. 2 (1990).
  • “Reciprocity.” 2019. Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster.
  • Wuthnow, Robert. 1995. Learning to Care: Elementary Kindness in an Age of Indifference. Cary: Oxford University Press USA - OSO. Accessed November 9, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central.


This briefing paper was edited in 2019 by a student taking a philanthropic studies course at The Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.