Q: Charitable giving is often characterized as “giving back,” which has a connotation of paying something owed. My wife and I make substantial donations. I think of this as freely giving, not paying a debt.
A: We’ve also made quite a few charitable donations over the years, and done many hours of volunteer work. And like you, we see this as giving freely of our savings and our time rather than repaying a debt to society.
Merriam-Webster defines the phrasal verb “give back” in this sense as “to provide help or financial assistance to others in appreciation of one’s own success or good fortune,” and has this example: “The community had people with time to volunteer and give back.”
We’d add that the way charities now use the term strikes us as marketing jargon that conveys a sense of obligation to contribute, as well as guilt for not doing so.
A less promotional version of the usage dates back to the 19th century. The earliest example we’ve seen is from a speech given Dec. 27, 1877, by W. M. Brooks, president of Tabor College, at a meeting in Cedar Rapids of the State Teachers’ Association of Iowa:
“I believe in general it is true, both of private and State schools, that they are doing their work so faithfully as to give back to the community vastly more than enough to repay the outlay.” In that example, “give back” is used literally (“to repay the outlay”).
We especially like this example from “Problems of Property,” an article by George Iles in The Popular Science Monthly, July 1882:
“It used to be thought that the sons or grandsons of rich Americans could be relied upon to give back to the community their inherited wealth through demoralization and incompetence; but that reliance is proved baseless in a noteworthy proportion of cases in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.”
And here’s a turn-of-the-century example from “The University and the City,” a speech by Seth Low, president of Columbia University, given at the University of Rochester on Oct. 11, 1900:
“The cities can justify themselves, in thus absorbing the population of the land, only by demonstrating that they have the capacity to give, as well as to take. If they take the people out of the country, they must not only give to these individuals enlarged opportunity and greater happiness, but, through them and through their own sons, they must give back to the country in a thousand ways what they have taken from it.”
The sense of repaying an obligation is even clearer in a Jan. 27, 1964, speech by Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine at the Women’s National Press Club in Washington.
One reason she decided to seek the Republican nomination for President, she says, “is that women before me pioneered and smoothed the way for me to be the first woman to be elected to both the House and the Senate—and that I should give back in return that which had been given to me.”
The use of the term was relatively rare until the 1980s, according to a search for “give back to the community” in Google’s Ngram Viewer, which tracks words and phrases in digitized books.
Business executives began using the expression at the time in describing charitable contributions by their companies, as in this example from a business forum in The New York Times, Jan. 3, 1988:
“The challenge in business is to find a socially responsible niche where you can effectively give back to the community in which you operate and in which you have prospered” (M. Anthony Burns, chairman of Ryder Systems).
The term is now often used by businesses, public figures, charities, and volunteers in connection with the Giving Tuesday movement, begun in 2012 by the 92nd Street Y in New York and the United Nations Foundation:
“Giving Tuesday 2023: 27 brands giving back: Giving Tuesday is a day for people and businesses to give back after Black Friday and Cyber Monday—here’s how to participate this year” (from the website of NBC News, Nov. 28, 2023).
In looking into the usage, we found an article in which Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill, director of the Campus Free Expression Project of the Bipartisan Policy Center, says the “demand that wealthy should ‘give back’ is heard mostly from progressive or leftist voices.”
In “Giving vs. ‘Giving Back’ ” (Philanthropy Daily, Jan. 4, 2012), Merrill says the “Harvard political theorist John Rawls gave expression to this view in his highly influential A Theory of Justice (1971).”
However, Rawls doesn’t use the term “give back” in his book about distributive justice, the fair allocation of resources. And we’ve seen no indication that people using the expression are particularly progressive, leftist, or aware of his work.
We’ll end with a passage from the book Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country (1990), by William F. Buckley Jr. In discussing the impossibility of repaying our cultural inheritance, he gives several examples, including this one about our musical heritage:
“If you listen, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, in May of every year, to four hundred musicians performing the St. Matthew Passion by J. S. Bach, it becomes numbingly plain that there is simply no way in which one can ‘repay’ the musical patrimony we have inherited.”