Giving back vs paying it forward

Early May 2024, I addressed my class at our Northwestern University – Kellogg School of Management reunion. On a panel about the road less traveled by MBAs, focused on my role as a lecturer at UPEACE and Nyenrode Business University. I was honored to be on stage with impressive gentlemen: Milton Liu who leads the oldest food bank and Delbret Taylor who serves in the U.S. House of Representatives.

As the panel progressed, I became increasingly uncomfortable. It seemed like this road less traveled was only an option for senior executives giving back later in their careers. As if these kinds of roles are all about ‘giving back’ to society after a career in the corporate sector.

I simply love teaching about sustainability. Yes, sharing my insights and experience is ‘giving back’ as I support changemakers in their journey to become more effective. However, I also benefit so much from this experience! By preparing courses together, I also learn a lot from academics like Andre Nijhof, Alonso Muñoz Solís, and Diane Zandee PhD. And I learn a lot from the students, as they share sustainability stories spanning many countries, continents, and industries.

But the bigger discomfort was in the implied ‘taking from’ society from our privileged positions before we ‘give it back’. So in the closing remarks to the panel discussion, I urged everyone to stop thinking about ‘giving back’. To instead think about doing less bad – or more good – in whatever role you have today. Whether in a traditional corporate role, a community role, or within your household. We can all contribute to a better world. We are all incredibly privileged and should think about paying it forward. Rather than giving back what may not have even been ours to take.

Thank you Mary Beth Barron for inviting me to join this panel. And Kevin Lee for moderating it in a great, open way, giving me space to turn my discomfort into a call to action. And thank you to the many classmates who followed up that call to action with conversations during the reunion and many messages and conversations since. These deeper connections with Kellogg friends and classmates continue to enrich my Kellogg experience!

This blog was written by Marjolein Baghuis and was also posted on LinkedIn. To read about interesting people, book reviews, and other posts about leadership, change, and sustainability, please subscribe to this blog in the right-hand column. 

Share your thoughts and comments

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.