How Can You "Give Back" Something that Wasn’t First Taken?

At the University of Michigan-Flint, where I teach, there is a “Giving Back” campaign that encourages alumni to “give back to campus through volunteering” (see graphic above). Here’s a recent news article about that campaign titled “Giving Back: UM-Flint alumni discover the rewards of volunteering.”

Below is my response to the Alumni Relations Office about its “Giving Back” campaign, explaining why I think the concept of “giving back” is fundamentally flawed and objectionable, basically because it falsely implies that there was some kind of “taking first.”

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”? Yes, many of our alumni like Kim Knag have had successful careers for decades working at Michigan companies like DTE Energy. But that business success is the reward that alumni like Kim have rightfully earned for investing in their UM-Flint education and devoting their time and talent to create products and services that others in society value. Kim Knag and other UM alumni haven’t taken anything from our campus or from society or from their local communities, but rather they have enriched and already “given to” many others in Michigan through their UM-Flint education, and their subsequent work and careers.

Therefore, it’s a concern that the “Give Back to Campus” campaign serves to minimize the value of the services to society that our alumni provide or have provided during their careers. Thousands of our distinguished alumni have provided immeasurable amounts and hours of services to their local communities through the “dedication, expertise, and enthusiasm” that they brought to their successful careers. Through their jobs, they “gave” of themselves and gave their effort, time and expertise to society throughout the majority of their adult working lives.

If UM alumni are to be encouraged to engage in volunteerism and philanthropy, they should be encouraged to do so freely because those are noble and honorable activities that create value for society, themselves and our campus. But alumni shouldn’t feel pressured by their alma mater that there is any obligation being imposed on them to “give back to their campus” with the underlying implication that some payback is necessary because they must have taken something during years at UM-Flint that needs to now be returned! And the service that they have provided for many decades to their local communities through their jobs and careers, hopefully as a direct result of their UM-Flint education, should not be minimized or dismissed as somehow inferior to the value of the volunteerism or philanthropy they choose to provide later in life!

I’ll agree that it’s a somewhat subtle and easily overlooked point, but I think you would have to agree that the very term “giving back” automatically and necessarily assumes that something was taken by alumni, perhaps unfairly, that must be returned or given back at a later time in some act of payback or reparations!

Here are some suggestions for how the campaign could be modified slightly to remove the “giving back something that was unfairly taken” theme and implication:

1. “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.”


2. “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.”

3. “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.”

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

Thanks for indulging me in my lifetime mission to combat the misguided concept (in my opinion) of “giving back something that was unfairly taken” whenever I get a chance!    

Here is some related commentary about why the concept of “giving back” is flawed and objectionable.

1. From Kim Dennis, writing in the Wall Street Journal in 2010: “Gates and Buffett Take the Pledge: Wealthy businessmen often feel obligated to ‘give back.’ Who says they’ve taken anything?

Successful entrepreneurs-turned-philanthropists typically say they feel a responsibility to “give back” to society. But “giving back” implies they have taken something. What, exactly, have they taken? Yes, they have amassed great sums of wealth. But that wealth is the reward they have earned for investing their time and talent in creating products and services that others value. They haven’t taken from society, but rather enriched us in ways that were previously unimaginable.

My point is simply that there is nothing inherently better or nobler about using one’s resources for charitable purposes than for any number of other ones. If anything, the marketplace does a better job of channeling resources toward where they are most valued, and of punishing failure. Companies shut down all the time. How many philanthropies close because of poor performance?

2. Bob Burg explains “Why the Concept of ‘Giving Back’ is Wrong” — because it implies the concept of “taking first,” which in most cases isn’t what really happened.

The way the term “giving back” is generally used is that you’ve made a lot of money in business off the backs of other people; not through providing exceptional value to many people, but that you did it through taking from other first. And now that you’ve taken, you feel like you “owe” something and feel the need to “give back.” But as long as no one was forced to do business with you, then there was a legitimate exchange of value. They willingly paid you for this. Both parties profited. They exchanged something they wanted less for something they wanted more.

3. On The Acton Institute blog, Nick Smith writes about “The Problem of ‘Giving Back to the Community’“:

There is, however, a problem – not with the practice of businesses “giving back,” but with the way we describe it. The phrase “giving back to the community” belies a deep misunderstanding of the nature of business. The picture that seems to be assumed is that most of the time, through its everyday work, the business is in fact taking from the community. Then, from time to time, it chooses to “give back” to the same community. At a superficial level this language makes sense: most of the time it is customers – members of the community – who are giving money to the business, while the business is then giving money back through its charitable donations. But this misses the fact that the business – if it is successful – is always giving to the community. A profitable business, conducted with integrity, is not taking from the community at all; indeed, its profits are nothing more or less than indicators of the value that the community has received from the business.

Update: Some additional commentary from Michael Hurd writing in Capitalism Magazine on “Why Bill Gates is Wrong About ‘Giving Back’“:

Here’s another myth about capitalism: That those who innovate and create owe others for the fact they made a lot of money. In other words, they create something that’s so valuable, that so many people need and wish to purchase, that they end up becoming billionaires. Yet they’re told they have to “give back.”

Give back? What did they take? 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. 

Most people claim not to buy into Marxism, but the overwhelming majority takes it for granted that if anyone makes a million, or a billion dollars, they must “give some of it back.” But again: what the hell was stolen?

Consider Bill Gates. He’s truly a titan of history. His Windows operating framework is the computer equivalent of the ground we walk on. Without that framework, little else about computers, or the Internet as we know it, would presently exist. Because what Gates created is so valuable, he became wealthy. The billions of dollars he and his company Microsoft have made were not done out of charity. And they involved no theft of anything by anybody. It was all self-interested, profit-driven, love-of-knowledge-based, creative productivity. And it created a lot of jobs and other forms of prosperity for a lot of people in the process.

Yet everyone — including, worst of all, Bill Gates himself — subscribe to the vicious falsehood that they owe something back. By saying, “I must give back,” a person is essentially acknowledging, “I stole something.” Not true!

I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with donating your money. Chances are, if you end up earning billions of dollars, then you rationally and even selfishly wish to give to causes — not only charity, but any cause or purpose significant to you. But it’s entirely up to you. Nobody should fine you, arrest you or condemn you if you choose to spend or save every penny of that money. It’s yours to spend, or not. What I am saying is that it’s wrong to claim, or even imply, that somebody owes another something simply because they were successful.

The billions anybody makes for doing something superb or excellent is neither a crime nor a sin. We should be grateful to these people, instead of punishing them or putting them in a position where they feel they have to constantly apologize for themselves. It’s idiotic, it’s sick, and it’s just plain wrong.

Reprinted from the American Enterprise Institute