THE BLOG
08/05/2013 01:40 pm ET | Updated Oct 05, 2013

Pay It Forward -- A 'Karma Seed' for Success

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For about a decade or so, social responsibility (or being attached to it) in the form of an annual "day of service" has become an element of corporate branding. Companies can smile in self-satisfaction as if to say "we're the good guys." They make a show about Paying It Forward, but it's not a way of life.

The term Pay It Forward, first used in Lily Hardy Hammond's 1916 book In the Garden of Delight, means that the beneficiary of a good deed repays it to someone else as opposed to their benefactor.

In his 1951 book Between Planets, Robert A. Heinlein is credited with making the term something of a household word:

The banker reached into the folds of his gown, pulled out a single credit note. His pride said no; his stomach said YES! Don took it and said, "Uh, thanks! That's awfully kind of you. I'll pay it back, first chance." "Instead, pay it forward to some other brother who needs it."

Following in his steps, the Heinlein Society continues to practice the philosophy of its spiritual mentor, in whose name the organization was founded.

A Lost Camera Becomes a Karma Seed

University student Christopher Lo, after regaining a lost video camera thanks to the kindness of a stranger, became inspired to create The Karma Seed service and website in 2010 in an effort to also promote the Pay It Forward philosophy. According to their website, it's an LLC contributing 50 percent of profits to The Karma Seed Foundation in support of social projects in the area of Washington University in St. Louis.

The "Karma Seed" is actually a small, plastic card not unlike a credit card. Whenever the bearer performs a favor for someone, they pass the card on to them. This new card holder refers to the website to see a history of the good deeds affiliated with the card. Then they pass it on to someone else upon performing a good deed.

The founding of the Pay it Forward Movement and Foundation eventually led to a Pay it Forward Bracelet, over a million of which have been worn in the spirit of reciprocal altruism.

Paying It Forward for Success

I assumed that only a handful followed this philosophy until this year's Earth Week in New York. Walking through the dreaded Times Square, I saw a large gathering of people in what appeared to be a movie shoot. When I got closer, I noticed they were all cleaning children's toys, and one of the people doing it was Steve Weatherford, punter for the New York Giants, whom I know does a lot of one-off charitable things. "It's important for me to give back," says Weatherford, "because I've been given so much and am very blessed. I just want to be able to share my good fortune with others."

What was going on? An annual event sponsored by a not-for-profit organization called Second Chance Toys. I'd never heard of them. "Over the course of seven years," says co-founder Shelly Lipton, "along with my daughter Sasha (who's the other co-founder), we've collected, re-purposed and distributed more than 150,000 gently used plastic toys to children in need." They've also saved as many pounds of non-biodegradable refuse from our landfills; a way of life for them.

The Hunt for Pay It Forward-ites

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I wanted to find more people like this and started asking around. It didn't take long. I can't list them all, but here are four:

Fishbowl Inventory, founded by author and CEO David K. Williams, is surprising: they encourage employees to develop their own businesses while still working for them. "It's respecting the individual and their rights," says President Mary Michelle Scott. "You don't own someone's life and their destiny. The outcome for Fishbowl? They give more respect when they know what it's like to own and run a company." On top of which, Fishbowl created an educational charity, the CAM Foundation. Wow.

A project started by Victoria Wynn, The Lies I Tell Myself, also caught my attention. A mother of five who at one time didn't have "enough money to put milk and cereal on the table for my children," Victoria has turned her sometimes-harrowing experiences into a successful heart based business, making mindful changes out of a person's debilitating lies and transforming them into powerful and freeing truths. And 10 percent of the profits go to Mitchell's Journey. Again, wow.

Another welcome surprise was Merchants Cash and Capital. "We were one of the very first companies to step up to the plate in an effort to provide financing for business owners after Hurricane Sandy," says Stephen Sheinbaum, President and CEO. "We also helped to raise money for the Red Cross and other local organizations, donating 1 percent of all cash advances to the charity of merchant's choice." It's not the only time they've gone the distance for people.

Very Jane, a daily deal web site for women based in Lehi, Utah, also does things notably different. "Our Deal Coordinators are also mothers," says founder and CEO Mike McEwan. "They work with small and mom & pop-sized businesses all over the USA to provide our customers with a variety of hand-crafted and unique retail items." The company also takes part in community outreach activities like Make A Wish Foundation, regular donations to women's shelters, schools and other groups with significant needs. Again, a way of life.

What do these and other similar companies have in common? Pay It Forward vision. Not because it's good business, but because it's just plain good.

In this global world of ours, businesses should take note: there are more ways to make money beyond bottom line methods. And there's more to planting good "Karma Seeds" besides making money.

Who and what would you add to the list?