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By Michael Moody, Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts

It might seem odd or even inappropriate to consider how philanthropy might be driven by something as utilitarian as reciprocity. But if we listen to the reasons people give for doing philanthropic acts, it is not uncommon to hear them cite reciprocity related motives. We would not be surprised, for instance, if the donor of a new campus building said she “just wanted to give back to this place that did so much for me,” or if a mentor to inner city kids said he hoped the kids would “grow up and be successful and do the same for someone else.” Andrew Carnegie, while still a teenager, was offered the use of the personal library of Colonel James Anderson, and later cited this as partial motivation for his gifts to establish free libraries around the country. These are surely familiar sounding examples and they all point to the central importance of reciprocity, of “giving back,” as a motive for giving, and perhaps even as a key philanthropic value. In some form, “reciprocity” is a common and persistent motivation for philanthropy across time and cultures, and can also be seen as a pervasive cultural value the supports the philanthropic tradition.

Both everyday experience and social scientific research suggest that reciprocity often drives what we consider philanthropic acts, but what is meant by reciprocity is varied. Sometimes the reciprocity involved is very direct—e.g., when a donor requires something tangible “in return” for their gift. What they require might be simply some form of recognition, or in more crass examples, it might be a more substantial material return, as in the case of the business owner who donates to a cause primarily because to get some advertising and draw in new customers. Sometimes, of course, such direct reciprocity is not stated as a motive in the account given by the donor, but is attributed by others who believe the gift was given only in order to “get something in return.”

More commonly, however, the form of reciprocity connected to philanthropy is indirect. For example, when someone says they are “grateful” for the general advantages or good fortune they have benefited from in the life, and so they want, in return, to “give something back somehow,” they are still talking about reciprocity. In fact, one type of indirect reciprocity is absolutely central to the practice of philanthropy, a type that Kenneth Boulding ([1973] 1981) has labeled “serial reciprocity” (see also Moody 1994, and Payton 1988). Serial reciprocity exists when people repay the benefits they have received—e.g. from a parent, a friend, a mentor, an anonymous stranger, a previous generation—by providing benefits to a third party, someone other than their benefactor. Serial reciprocity is what people mean when they say, “pass it on,” or “one good turn deserves another,” or “don't pay me back, do something similar for someone else instead.”

In scholarly work, reciprocity is characterized in many different ways (it is similar to altruism, in this respect). Applied to philanthropy, reciprocity can be thought of as a motivation for philanthropy, a justification for philanthropy offered in ex post facto accounts, an ethical virtue similar to gratitude and the Golden Rule, a moral norm that serves to keep the chain of good works going in a society, or a cultural value that we celebrate as part of our conception of what is good about our society.

Philosophers have long identified reciprocation and gratitude as indispensable elements in the virtuous life. Lawrence Becker (1986) summarizes the philosophical understanding of reciprocity as a virtue by saying that this virtue requires “fitting and proportional” returns for benefits received.

Social scientists have pointed out the functional and cultural importance of reciprocity not only in modern Western societies but in native and Eastern cultures as well. S ociologist Alvin Gouldner (1960) offered a famous analysis of what he called the “norm of reciprocity” that he argued was essential for stable social systems. Some later sociological work has looked at the complex structures of reciprocal give and take we create, while other work has focused attention on how reciprocity is a way of making sense of experiences and giving meaning to actions, including philanthropic actions such as organ or blood donation. Robert Wuthnow's (1991) research on why people act compassionately and volunteer, for instance, revealed that people often refer back to those who helped them in the past when explaining why they now help people in the present; they often describe feeling an “obligation” or “duty” to do good because of the good they have received. In this sense, they practice the norm of reciprocity through serial reciprocity.

Social psychologists have also found ample experimental evidence for the existence of a norm of reciprocity, or at least for a widely-felt disposition to reciprocate (e.g., Fisher, et al., eds. 1983) . They find that people will often feel uncomfortable until they are able to “return favors” or create equity in their relationships in some way. Of course, sometimes making direct “repayment” to your benefactor is impossible, or even inappropriate, such as when your altruistic benefactor clearly does not want a “return.” Similarly, sometimes the original benefactor can be unknown, as with the proverbial Good Samaritan passing by on the road when we are unconscious and in need of help, or even deceased, such as when our benefactor is a past generation. In cases like these, studies have shown that people will try to meet the requirements of reciprocity by making serial returns to third parties. And, not surprisingly, the evidence indicates recipients are indeed more likely to give to a third party who is similar to their own benefactors, if they can. Deciding whether and how to do reciprocity, then, requires reading situational cues and assessing whatever information is available in order to decide what is a “fitting and proportional” response.

Anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss has called reciprocation “the essence of social life” ([1957] 1980) and his colleagues have chronicled very complex systems of indirect or even circular reciprocation in native cultures such as the Trobriand Islanders, practitioners of the famous “Kula Ring” of gift giving (see Mauss [1925] 1990). Reciprocal systems of “gift giving” form both the moral and economic core of many cultures around the globe, and such complex systems laid important foundations for our current western cultural values and practices such as “pass it on.” Anthropologists have also interpreted the relations within families, and between generations, as adhering to a norm of (serial) reciprocity. Children in Japanese culture, for example, are taught that they should repay the sacrifices made for them by their parents by making similar sacrifices for their own children. More generally, obligations between generations in a general sense have been described as based on a sense of reciprocity—doing good for future generations is perhaps the most appropriate way to repay what we owe to past generations. There are many instances in modern philanthropic practice where this sort of justification for “giving to posterity” is key.

Reciprocity, even in its serial form, might still be criticized by some as an improper philanthropic motive and value, as detracting from the “altruism” or benevolent and purely charitable intentions of “true” philanthropy. Critics fear that doing philanthropy because of reciprocal “obligations” will strip philanthropy of its voluntary character. But the fact remains that people do very often think about their philanthropy activity in this way, as driven at least in part by reciprocity. Also, we can see how reciprocity, in its “serial” or indirect forms, loses some of its utilitarian edge and becomes more akin to values such as gratitude and stewardship. And there is no reason to assume that motives of reciprocity cannot exist alongside motives of altruism—looking at how reciprocity is connected to philanthropy reveals, in fact, just how mixed and often ambiguous the “motives” for philanthropy usually are.


Becker, Lawrence C. 1986. Reciprocity . London: Routledge and Kegan, Paul.

Boulding, Kenneth. [1973] 1981. A Preface to Grants Economics: The Economy of Love and Fear. New York: Praeger.

Fisher, Jeffrey D., Arie Nadler, and Bella M. DePaulo, eds. 1983. New Directions in Helping. Vol. 1, Recipient Reactions to Aid . New York: Academic Press.

Gouldner, Alvin. 1960. “The Norm of Reciprocity: A Preliminary Statement.” American Sociological Review 25 (2): 161-78.

Levi-Strauss, Claude. [1957] 1980. “Reciprocity: The Essence of Social Life.” Pp. XX-XX in The Pleasures of Sociology. Edited by Lewis Coser and Bernard Rosenberg. New York: Macmillan Company.

Mauss, Marcel. [1925] 1990. The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies . Translated by W.D. Halls. New York: W. W. Norton.

Moody, Michael. 1994. “Pass it On: Serial Reciprocity as a Principle of Philanthropy.” Essays in Philanthropy. No 13. Indianapolis, IN: The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Payton, Robert L. 1988. Philanthropy: Voluntary Action for the Public Good . New York: ACE/Macmillan.

Wuthnow, Robert. 1991. Acts of Compassion: Caring for Others and Helping Ourselves . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.