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Pay it forward: food for thought

Encouraging employees to pay it forward by purchasing their colleague’s coffee at the company cafe and inspiring others to do the same.

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Many companies have a central coffee shop, cafeteria, or food hall for employees to take breaks, eat lunch, and mingle with each other. By taking a key part of an employee’s day - purchasing a coffee or lunch - and creating an opportunity to both express and receive gratitude, we hope to inspire gratitude throughout the entire company.


Pay it forward will encourage employees to purchase coffee or lunch for a specific colleague or friend, or to simply purchase an item for the next person in line. Empirical outcomes have shown that these pay it forward chains can last for days, with each customer paying for the meal of a stranger. Entire foundations have been started on this principle - the idea that fundamentally, people want to give back to their communities. 


Practically, employees will be reminded of this program by the cashiers and signs throughout the office. The goal is for senior leaders to set a positive example of this program, and then have employees surprise each other with displays of gratitude throughout the year. 

Idea Title

Pay it forward: gratitude through giving back

How the Idea will inspire the experience and expression of gratitude within an organization.

Paying it forward will inspire gratitude by influencing people to build a culture of gratitude whenever possible. Each time an employee purchases a coffee or a meal, they will be offered the option to pay it forward to a colleague or the next person in line. This gentle reminder to give back to the community, as well as to give and receive gratitude will help inspire gratitude to be more top of mind for employees. Additionally, each person that receives a complimentary meal or coffee may feel inspired by gratitude and may give back to the community again, which will continue the cycle of goodwill and gratitude engendered by a single person’s decision to give back.

Who are you innovating for?

Our primary audience will be employees at a company that offers on-premise dining options for a fee. These individuals will be able to easily “pay it forward” to others, and engender gratitude around the entire company by making a small gesture.

What type of workplaces are you innovating for?

We would first like to introduce this initiative to small and mid-size companies around the US. As the initiative gains traction, it can be implemented at various companies all over the US. This idea can then be extended to countries where paying it forward fits into the cultural context of that country.

How you envision the Idea being introduced to your selected organization?

The process for implementing the pay it forward idea at a company cafeteria will be: Engage in conversations with HR and management at companies that have traditionally been thoughtful about culture and gratitude Partner with companies that would like to implement the initiative, and work with them hand-in-hand to design and structure a product that would work for that particular company; alternatively, create and send the company a toolkit to implement the initiative themselves Collect feedback on the efficacy of the program and continue to educate companies as to the benefits of gratitude and the quantitative change in employee happiness and behavior Work with management to implement.

What obstacles, if any, do you foresee in implementing this Idea, and how would they be overcome?

Individuals at companies may not buy into the idea of gratitude or paying it forward. This can be mitigated by senior leadership acting as an example, as well as educational sessions on the researched efficacy of gratitude from a qualitative and quantitative perspective. Paying it forward may lose its value of gratitude if everyone subscribes to the idea. This can be mitigated by a gratitude reminder each time a person pays it forward, or receives an item that has been paid forward.

How will you test and prototype your solution?

We will begin prototyping the solution by implementing a small scale pilot at our university cafe. We will collect relevant feedback via surveys and focus groups and begin designing a product and solution that could work across many different types of companies. We will then pilot this initiative at a company that fits certain criteria so that we can collect additional useful feedback. After pilots at a few companies, we will launch on a larger scale by launching at selected companies.

What immediate next steps will you take if you receive an implementation grant.

If we receive an implementation grant, we will first discuss options with the university to launch at The Wharton School. Based on the learnings, we will then pilot the initiative with a company that fits our criteria (size, culture, location, etc.) and collect feedback from the efficacy of that pilot.

At what stage of development is your Idea?

  • Research & Early Testing: You are exploring an idea, gathering inspiration and information needed to test it with real users.

Please describe from where your Idea emerged

A team of five MBA students at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania worked together to brainstorm a few ideas. This idea came from the belief that pay it forward chains are inherent to human identity, and are natural, free form expressions of gratitude.

Tell us about yourself

We are a group of five MBA students at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania: Christine Feng, Danielle Ross, Rose Liu, Laura Kim, and Megan Cody. Having experience working in finance, consulting, and technology backgrounds, we have come from workplaces that have been excellent at sharing thanks amongst team members to workplaces that barely recognize others.

Where are you / your team located?

The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, PA.

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Hi Christine,

Great to see you in the Ideas Phase! Is there any chance you could find an image to go along with it? Images help grab attention and tell a story. You should be able to use the Edit Contribution button on the top of your post and follow the instructions to add images from there.

Just a friendly reminder the deadline to update your post is today at 3:00 p.m. Looking forward to seeing more of your inspiring insights on OpenIDEO.