Two years ago, a woman strolled into Corner Perk Café, an intimate coffee venue located in the low-country town of Bluffton, South Carolina. She politely ordered, paid for her drink, then handed the cashier an unanticipated $100 bill. Had it not been intended for the other customers behind her, it would have been a lofty tip for the lucky cashier.
Since then, the woman, who is anonymous even to Corner Perk employees, has donated on eight or nine separate occasions—the most recent being this past February. Whatever her motivation, fellow Corner Perk customers have noticed. Some began paying for the person in line behind them too. And so the trend began.
“‘Pay it forward’ is naturally becoming a motto of ours after seeing what this woman has done and how it has affected people,” Corner Perk Café owner Josh Cooke says. “What’s really neat is how other people are starting to catch on—today a guy came in and paid it forward, and three people after him did the same thing.”
Paying it forward occurs when a single person decides to do something kind for someone else without expecting anything in return. The recipient then goes on to do something kind for another person. This cycle continues until kindness spreads throughout the community.
Science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein coined the term “pay it forward” in his book Between Planets. However, the concept was far from new. Greek dramatist Menander gave life to the idea through his New Comedy Dyskolos in 317 B.C. Sostratos, the lead character in the play, stated that a wealthy man must be noble and should “make rich as many people as you can by your own efforts, for this act never dies.” The text of this play went missing until 1957 when it was discovered and republished.
Similarly, in 1784, Benjamin Franklin made an effort to revive the concept in a letter he addressed to Kentucky Senator Benjamin Webb. In the letter, Franklin stated he would lend Webb a sum of money, but that if Webb ever met another honest man who needed financial help, he should repay Franklin by lending the money to that third party. From there, he hoped “it may go thro’ many hands . . .”
The movement was publicly revived in 1999 when author Catherine Ryan Hyde published her third book, appropriately titled Pay it Forward. The following year, a film based on the book starring Kevin Spacey and Helen Hunt was released in theaters. The story follows three characters asked to complete three generous deeds for each act of generosity they had received. This deed had to achieve something unattainable by the recipient. The characters spun a web of kindness through their kind acts.
Reaction to the book and subsequent film was so popular that the concept behind it was turned into a national holiday. The holiday, known as National Pay it Forward Day, was founded by Australian Blake Beattie in 2007 and takes place every year on April 26.
Growing up, Nichols’ family lived in poverty, surviving on food stamps and the kindness of others. Neighbors would send care baskets, and on one occurrence somebody even left them money in their mailbox.
“There’s absolutely no way we could go back and repay them, so the best thing we could do was to pay it forward to people who were in similar situations and try to make their lives a little bit better,” Nichols says.
Nichols became the U.S. coordinator of the holiday in 2009, when only fifteen countries celebrated the day. In three years, he “rallied the troops,” improving relations between existing members and expanding the movement to encompass forty-eight countries including Brazil, Denmark, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.
Although “National Pay it Forward Day” is only held once a year, for Nichols the significance of the day extends year round.
“I think it’s more than just an act of kindness—it’s a lifestyle that you lead,” Nichols says. “It’s being aware of the opportunities that are constantly around you to help other people, and being comfortable enough to take action.”
Today, Nichols also works as a guest speaker showing students, businesses, and organizations how he pays it forward in his own life. He says people gravitate toward the idea after hearing real stories of ways it’s been put into action.
“Normally, when you have a charity, it’s people of a higher stature giving to a lower class or something of that nature,” Nichols explains. “With the ‘Pay it Forward’ concept, you’re all on the same playing field—if I’m going to do something nice for you, I want you to do something for somebody else with whatever means you have.”
Nichols believes that once someone has inspired someone else to mirror his or her compassion, this connection creates a partnership and strengthens humanity.
National Pay it Forward Day is meant to be a reminder, not a one-day festivity, as Nichols says people should not be limited to showing kindness on solely April 26. Nichols himself wears two “Pay it Forward” bracelets, one on each wrist, to remind himself of his daily mission. However, he does admit that some days it’s harder to be kind than others.
“It’s one of those things where something incredible might not happen today, it might not happen tomorrow, or even next week,” Nichols says. “You just keep it in the back of your head so that when the opportunity becomes available to you, you really put yourself out there and help someone in a major way.”
Jonathan Stark used his knowledge of smartphones and mobile computing to spread goodwill via Android and a cup of coffee; a side project to his consulting career leading training workshops on developing and navigating mobile applications. Through discovering that he could use a screen-shot of his Starbucks iPhone App barcode on his phone, he filled the card with fifty dollars and posted the photo to his website. His readers drank it up – within minutes, the card was drained.
Stark could only continue adding his own money to the card for so long. But when a friend discovered virtually anyone could load his or her own money onto the card with a barcode, “Jonathan’s Card” was born.
“I immediately set up a web page with instructions for using the picture and a script that checked the card balance on Starbucks.com every minute,” Stark says. “One of my friends blogged about the whole thing and 48 hours later, Jonathan’s Card was on CNN.”
The card received strong public support, reaffirming Stark’s view that human beings are naturally altruistic. Stark also provided them with the opportunity to donate their own money to the card as well by reloading onto the card’s number on Starbucks.com. In the card’s last five days of its month-long activity, users gulped down $19,000 worth of drinks.
Although Starbucks shut down Jonathan’s Card last August due to concerns over fraud, the Jonathan’s Card Facebook page and blog are still bustling with activity. Avid followers continue to post their ‘pay it forward’ stories and are even pushing to activate a second shared card.
“Jonathan’s Card reinforced my belief that the vast majority of people are good, honest, and that they enjoy sharing—even with an anonymous stranger,” Stark says.
Paying it forward boils may just be the glimmer of hope that this world needs. All it takes is one compassionate person to show another kindness. For the recipient, paying it forward is the easiest—and most rewarding—kind of debt they will ever have to settle.