Must Successful People 'Give Back'?


Giving of one's resources and time is the American way. We love achievement and we take pride in a job well done.

This holds true whether we do it for money or purely out of a sense of service and generosity. Giving is not merely commendable, it's natural and enjoyable.

But whether a wealthy businessman helps out kids in lesser economic situations or a volunteer helps clean up litter in his neighborhood, there is no obligation to help out, and that's the beauty of giving. It's rewarding because we do it of our own will and desire.

So how did the concept of volunteerism and philanthropy turn into one of indebtedness?

That's the question University of Michigan-Flint economics professor Mark Perry poses to his employers' alumni association, which recently started a new campaign themed on the notion of "giving back."

Perry argues that the school's current “give back” fundraising campaign is "fundamentally flawed."

Through UM-Flint’s "Giving Back' campaign, our alumni are being encouraged to 'give back to our campus' through volunteering and philanthropy. But to me (and others who share my opinion on this), the whole premise of asking our alumni to 'give back' is a fundamentally flawed concept.

Reason? The underlying premise of encouraging anybody – successful business people or UM alumni – to 'give back' is objectionable to some of us because it implies that those alumni have previously 'taken something' from our campus or from society that now needs to be returned or given back – like stolen property! An obvious question is what, exactly, have our alumni taken from our campus that they now need to 'give back'?

If you've benefited from a college education, you may think the entire campus production is a huge investment in a lot of people's time and energy to make it possible for you to succeed.

Fair enough. But does that mean you owe something to the school. Does the "give back" notion imply that those doing the giving must in some way pay a debt or return a favor? Or is it merely a linguistic device used by the school to guilt people into paying attention to an increasingly overlooked recipient of charitable giving — wealthy universities?

TPOH loves philanthropy and volunteerism, and would never take issue with any alumni who want to offer time, money, or other resources to their alma maters. Indeed, many graduates consider college the best time of their lives, and the memories created — much less the skills learned — are worth acknowledging with contributions and donations.

However, Perry's claim is that the campaign diminishes the value of the services that alumni offer to the larger society after their graduation. That's where the real "give back" (or "pay it forward") occurs. The university isn't owed anything by the former student (who nowadays mostly likely went into debt to attend).

Perry's admittedly nuanced point is that perhaps UM-Flint could use language more carefully. He offers these suggestions:

““If you are a UM-Flint alumnus looking for a chance to give back contribute to our campus through volunteering, visit our alumni volunteer page to learn more about upcoming volunteer opportunities.”

  1. “If you are a UM-Flint alumnus looking for a chance to give back make a difference on our to campus through volunteering, visit our alumni volunteer page to learn more about upcoming volunteer opportunities.”

  2. “But there’s something that sets University of Michigan-Flint graduates apart from the rest: their commitment to giving back to making a difference / to contributing their time.”

  3. Giving Back: Making a Difference: UM-Flint alumni discover the rewards of volunteering.”

Perry isn't the only person to take issue with the wording, and he quotes Michael Hurd's commentary in Capitalism magazine.

If I take your car, I should give it back. In fact, I shouldn’t steal in the first place. Stealing is wrong, and it should be illegal.

But creating and producing are not theft. That’s why people become billionaires: Because they created something very valuable, and in demand.

TPOH readers often debate the merits and obligations of successful people, with arguments occasionally focusing on the need for the wealthy and well-off to be more charitable because of their success. E.g. they owe everyone else for who enabled them to be successful. Therefore, they need to give back.

Doing something for others is a favorite topic at TPOH, but generosity is not something given through coercion or obligation. On the contrary, it's provided out of a selfish and self-satisfying feeling of contentment of being able to give something of value to others.

Ironically, that's how the majority of successful people became successful — they created something that others deemed worth paying for.

When Americans give of themselves, they do it not because they owe anyone anything. They do it because creating value is fulfilling of its own accord. UM-Flint alumni, like millions of others, prove that all the time.

Is Perry's commentary correct or nitpicking? Sound off!