The concept of ‘paying it forward’ is widely seen in the United States. The latest act of pay-it-forward kindness took place at a McDonald’s drive-thru in Scottsburg, Ind. on Father’s Day with 167 drivers in succession ‘paying it forward’.
In the US, that sentence would need no further explanation, but in the UK, it’s a different matter. Over here, we are less in-tune with the notion – so you’d be forgiven for asking for a definition of ‘paying it forward’.
Here’s one definition: “Pay it forward is an expression for describing the beneficiary of a good deed repaying it to others instead of to the original benefactor.”
If you saw the 2000 movie ‘Pay It Forward’, starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt, or read the novel of the same title, it’s probably all flooding back.
Origins of pay it forward
Some say that the idea of paying it forward dates back as far as 317 BC. So it goes, the concept was used as a key plot element in the denouement of a New Comedy play in Athens, Greece by Menander called Dyskolos.
However, the idea is more famously associated with Benjamin Franklin who, in 1784, wrote a letter to Benjamin Webb explaining how rather than giving the man a good deed, he but lent it to him. “When you […] meet with another honest Man in similar Distress, you must pay me by lending this Sum to him,” Franklin implored the man.
The phrase ‘pay it forward’ itself, though, is attributed to Lily Hardy Hammond, who wrote it in her 1916 book In the Garden of Delight.
Why has it gone out of fashion?
It’s hard to say exactly why pay it forward has become less fashionable. Some might argue that the world we live in now fails to cater for the concept – people and businesses have to look after themselves first, before they can think about helping others out.
Maybe it’s just a matter of the concept no longer entering our thought processes – we’re more inclined to think about paying a good deed back than paying it forward.
Or, perhaps we’ve just got into the habit of always expecting something back in return for a good deed. It’s been known for people to adopt a ‘no-favours’ policy for this reason – if they accept a favour, they know they’re going to have to pay it back at some point in the future.
Bringing it back in vogue
You don’t have to look far back to see pay it forward in action – just think about how the local butcher and local farmer used to help each other out to ensure they were both getting a good deal and able to sustain their businesses.
However, this approach has disappeared in the last 50 years. For example, local farmers are now more likely to engage with bigger businesses, who are much more price driven. They care less about building supportive relationships with their suppliers, with the focus on profit margins and pleasing shareholders.
That’s not true for all major corporations – Toyota, for example, recently created a new community foundation, giving it a chance to pay it forward “by supporting local activities that are in line with our Toyota values”. The vehicle manufacturer agreed to share its knowledge in certain areas “for a small fee” – donating the proceeds to the foundation.
We’ve also witnessed the rise of the conscious business, with the likes of Body Shop, Whole Foods Market and Starbucks committed to various community programmes. Smaller businesses may not be able to commit to such large-scale initiatives – but there’s nothing stopping them helping one another out.
We’ve all seen the stat: four in 10 small companies don’t make it past the five-year mark. However, the proportion of those that do could be higher, if given the necessary support.
How many of those businesses would have survived if they were given the right advice and support at a pivotal time?
Ultimately, we are stronger together. We believe that communities are key to business owners achieving happiness and success – Agnentis Partners was built on that ethos. By building communities, small and medium-sized enterprises will have access to skills and knowledge they never knew was available.
Communities can only be built, though, when there is a shared sense of purpose. They require businesses to meaningfully engage with each other; passing one good deed on to the next business. That good deed might be a simple referral or the offer of specialist support – it’s about creating a sense of strength in numbers.
As American author and professor Adam Grant puts it: “Givers reject the notion that interdependence is weak. Givers are more likely to see interdependence as a source of strength, a way to harness the skills of multiple people for a greater good. The more I help out, the more successful I become.”
So, what good has happened to you that you could pay forward?