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Dec. 1, 2021, 11:41 a.m. EST

Greenpeace wants donors to take a cue from ‘Succession’ and embrace ‘spite philanthropy’

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By Leslie Albrecht

Cousin Greg on HBO’s /zigman2/quotes/203165245/composite T -2.22% “Succession” appears to have lost his entire inheritance to Greenpeace — and the environmental justice group hopes to turn that fictional blow into real-world donations.

Greenpeace USA suggested that donors “can piss off one of your own relatives by making an early #GivingTuesday gift to @GreenpeaceUSA right now!” in a tweet ahead of Giving Tuesday, the annual international campaign to promote charitable giving.

The tweet was a nod to a story line on “Succession,” in which Greg, a naif who seems to bumble through every interaction with his relatives in the power-hungry Roy family, recently announced his intention to sue Greenpeace after his grandfather declared he was leaving Greg’s inheritance to the environmental organization. 

The mention of Greenpeace on the show has stirred interest in people leaving money to the group in their wills, and Greenpeace U.K. even published a guide for people who want to follow in Greg’s grandfather’s footsteps, the Guardian reported .

The visibility has also increased online visits to Greenpeace USA’s donation page, a spokeswoman said.

“We’ve definitely had an increase in traffic to our donation pages from social media about HBO’s ‘Succession,’” said Tricia Hart, Greenpeace USA’s chief development officer. “The timing has never been more urgent for our work, and we are happy to see Greenpeace’s continued relevance as the nemesis of corporate greed during our 50th anniversary.”

On the show, Greg’s grandfather said he had to leave his fortune to Greenpeace because Greg had aligned himself with “a monstrous endeavor” and a “gang of crapulous shills” by joining sides with the Roys’ conservative media empire. Intentionally or not, Greenpeace USA used similarly strong language on the donation page linked to its tweet, saying that “Evidence shows that greedy corporations are directly responsible for plastic pollution, forest destruction, and the fossil-fueled climate emergency we are witnessing around the world.”

As with much of “Succession,” Greg losing his inheritance to Greenpeace has roots in reality. It’s an example of “spite philanthropy,” said Greg Witkowski, a senior lecturer of nonprofit management at Columbia University. “Spite philanthropy” refers to people donating money as a way to offend or dishonor specific people, said Witkowski, who coined the term and wrote about it earlier this year in an op-ed for the Chronicle of Philanthropy.  

Examples include people raising more than $1 million for the reproductive-rights group Planned Parenthood in “honor of” conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh after his death, and a 2019 Giving Tuesday appeal by Patagonia that mentioned donating to environmental groups in the name of “your holdout uncle who refuses to believe in climate science.” Another instance was when donors who disliked former President Donald Trump sent money to shark conservation groups after learning that Trump hated sharks.

It showed up this Giving Tuesday too, when comedian Mike Birbiglia said he would donate to a food bank in honor of someone who had suggested food insecurity was a “communist buzz word.”

“People have recognized for a long time that people give for emotional reasons. This is just a different emotion than we want to tie to philanthropic giving usually, but it’s there,” Witkowski said.

In terms of a fundraising strategy, asking donors to tap into spiteful feelings is in line with Greenpeace’s tradition of aggressive action, which has included confronting whaling ships at sea. Spite-based appeals may not work as well for charities with less-edgy brands, Witkowski noted.

“Giving Tuesday — it’s fantastic that it raises so much money, but it’s become such a time of competitive fundraising among nonprofits that it’s not surprising that some nonprofits want to stand out,” Witkowski said.

As for Greg’s legal fight against Greenpeace, it remains to be seen whether it’s another fumble by Greg or a Machiavellian move. There are still two more episodes this season.

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