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Giving Thanks by Giving Back

by Michael Moody
Giving Thanks by Giving Back

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. This is not because of its historical significance — which is complicated and ignores the real context of European colonization (, 2021). And this is also not (only) due to my appreciation of tryptophan and midweek football. Rather, it’s because I love having a holiday specifically designated for giving thanks, for reminding ourselves of the importance of gratitude.

Gratitude has value for many reasons, not the least of which is that gratitude often fuels philanthropy. As well it should.

Showing thanks is one of those rare virtues that is hailed by cultures and faiths all around the globe and throughout time — some might even say it is a moral universal.

Gratitude has been considered an essential ingredient in the good society by philosophers from Seneca and Aquinas to Adam Smith and Immanuel Kant (yes, Adam Smith was a philosopher, not an economist). Cicero, in a famous speech defending his friend Plancius, called gratitude the parent of all other virtues (n.d.).

Gratefulness for the blessings we receive from God/Allah/YHWH/etc. is also a central teaching across the religious spectrum. Being thankful for these blessings requires believers to be good stewards of what God provides, and to help those who have not been so blessed.

“Gratitude has value for many reasons, not the least of which is that gratitude often fuels philanthropy. As well it should.”

Mirroring religion in this respect, science has shown how being grateful is also good for you — emotionally but also physically. The psychologist Robert Emmons (2008) in particular has done extensive experimental work demonstrating how showing gratitude and regularly reflecting on the good things in your life can help you sleep better, lower your blood pressure, make you more optimistic and joyful, help you fight stress and feelings of loneliness, and of course, make you more compassionate and generous (2010). Gratitude journals and gratitude apps abound to help people realize these tangible benefits of practicing gratitude (Marsh, 2011; Nortje, 2021; & Singh, 2018).

Beyond just reflecting on what we are grateful for, we often act as a result of this. Giving thanks often leads to actual giving. We say thanks for what we have received by doing something good for other people. I have written about this practice as “serial reciprocity” — but it is more commonly discussed as “giving back” or “paying it forward” (Moody, 2008; Shaker & Williams, 2019; Pay it Forward Foundation).

I don’t need to explain just how powerful “giving back” is as a motive for philanthropy.  “Giving back” is becoming almost synonymous with “giving” in everyday talk about why we are charitable, though it seems especially important as a giving motive for athletes, celebrities, and the wealthy.

The Giving Back Fund helps celebrities and successful athletes give to disadvantaged communities and become “philanthropic role models who will inspire others to give back.” The Young, Black and Giving Back Institute helps “young black professionals, influencers, social entrepreneurs, and activists” to use philanthropy as an investment for change in their communities.

Paul Schervish (2005) and his collaborators at Boston College studied the explanations given by wealthy donors for over two decades, and they concluded from this work that “a virtually universal disposition that we encountered is the propensity that many [donors] summarize by the simple yet heartfelt phrase ‘to give back’” (p. 155).

This gratitude is “generative” and “mobilizing,” leading wealthy donors to give to those less fortunate specifically because of their own good fortune. In her classic study, Why the Wealthy Give, Francie Ostrower (1997) also noted the common expression of “giving back” motives. Wealthy donors viewed grateful giving as a social obligation, not just a personal value.

Warren Buffet provides an explicit and notable illustration of this connection of gratitude to giving. He often says that he won the “ovarian lottery” by being born when and where he was, in a place and time where his particular skills at capital allocation would allow him to build a massive “fortune” …and that word is meaningful (Elkins, 2018).

Being this fortunate, for Mr. Buffett, has consequences. As he says in his “Giving Pledge” signing letter:

The reaction of my family and me to our extraordinary good fortune is not guilt, but rather gratitude. … That reality sets an obvious course for me and my family: Keep all we can conceivably need and distribute the rest to society, for its needs. My pledge starts us down that course. (n.d., para. 11)

He is not alone among Giving Pledgers in connecting gratitude with their giving. A recent study of 187 Giving Pledge letters found “gratitude toward others” or “giving back” was mentioned explicitly in 70 of them (Schmitz, Mitchell, & McCollim, 2021).

Perhaps the most dramatic example of good works being motivated by gratitude is the story of Albert Schweitzer, who at age 30 abruptly abandoned a comfortable life as a celebrated organist and scholar, and devoted the rest of his life to service. Schweitzer (1998) explained that he did so because he felt he “must give something in return” (p. 84) for the good fortune he had received. Good fortune obligated him to live a philanthropic life (Martin, 2007). He enrolled in medical school and spent the rest of his life providing medical care in his hospital in Africa.

Fundraisers, too, know all about this connection of gratitude to giving. In their well-known list of the 7 types of major donors, Russ Alan Prince and Karen Maru File (2001) identify “The Repayer” as a donor seeking to express gratitude to the sort of institution (often the same one) that they once benefited from themselves. This includes former patients giving back to a hospital, or of course, alumni giving to their alma mater.

So on this Thanksgiving, let me say that one of the things I am grateful for is Thanksgiving itself. I’m thankful to be reminded of the importance of gratitude, and especially of showing gratitude through philanthropy.

And I encourage everyone to give thanks by giving back.


Buffett, W. (n.d.). Giving pledge.

Cicero, M. T. (1891). The Orations of Marcus Tullius Cicero, For Plancius (C. D. Yonge, Trans.). George Bell & Sons. Chapter 33, section 80.

Elkins, K. (2018, October 16). Warren Buffett: ‘If I had been a female, my life would have been entirely different’.

Emmons, R. A. (2008). Thanks!: How practicing gratitude can make you happier. Houghton Mifflin.

Emmons, R. (2010, November 16). Why gratitude is good. Greater Good Magazine.

The Giving Back Fund. (n.d.). (2021, November 11). Thanksgiving 2021.

Marsh, J. (2011, November 17). Tips for keeping a gratitude journal. Greater Good Magazine.

Moody, M. (2008, May). Serial reciprocity: A preliminary statement. Sociological Theory, 26(2), 130–151.

Nortje, A. (2021, October 9). 7 best gratitude apps to increase your wellbeing.

Ostrower, F. (1997, April 2). Why the Wealthy Give. Princeton University Press.

Pay It Forward Foundation. (n.d.). Inspiring a kinder world.

Prince, R. A., & File, K. M. (2001). The seven faces of philanthropy: A new approach to cultivating major donors. Jossey-Bass.

Schervish, P. G. (2005). The sense and sensibility of philanthropy as a moral citizenship of care. In D. H. Smith (Ed.), Good intentions: Moral obstacles & opportunities (pp 149-165). Indiana University Press.

Schmitz, H. P., Mitchell, G. E. & McCollim, E. M. (2021, March). How billionaires explain their philanthropy: A mixed-method analysis of the Giving Pledge letters. Voluntas, 32, 512-523.

Shaker, G. & Williams, D. F. (2019). Serial reciprocity: Pay it forward. Learning to Give.

Singh, M. (2018, December 24). If you feel thankful, write it down. It’s good for your health. NPR.

Schweitzer, A. (1998). Out of my life and thought. Johns Hopkins University Press.

Young, Black & Giving Back Institute. (n.d.).


A previous version of this article was originally published on our website in November 2011.