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Senior Lecturer Greg Witkowski on the Genesis of “Spite Philanthropy”

M.S. Nonprofit Management Senior Lecturer Greg Witkowski defined the term “spite philanthropy” in an Op-Ed for The Chronicle of Philanthropy last year. In “Move Over, Rage Philanthropy. It’s Time for Spite Philanthropy,” Dr. Witkowski refers to donations made specifically to offend or dishonor another. When controversial radio show talk host Rush Limbaugh died in February 2021, a push to donate to Planned Parenthood in his name began trending across social media. “While giving in honor of someone has a long tradition, this collection represents rejecting someone’s legacy,” writes Dr Witkowski. “It was matching a scornful approach with a positive outcome for one nonprofit. It was spite philanthropy.” He warns that the trend has the potential to move nonprofits into unproductive societal divisions and partisanship. 

“In focusing on issues that are politically charged, do donors leave behind more traditional nonprofits that provide essential services? For nonprofit organizations, the question is, is the money worth it?” Dr. Witkowski continues in The Chronicle of Philanthropy. “Like any fundraising question, the answer depends on the values and positions an organization seeks to advance.”  

The term emerged out of a class discussion on how nonprofits can stand out in their fundraising efforts during his course, “The Role and Unique Nature of the Nonprofit Sector,” and has since taken on a life of its own. There are many reasons people give to charities beyond altruism. Nonprofit leaders should analyze the various motivations that people have for giving–the why and how people give–to unlock new opportunities for philanthropic growth.  

“Have you ever made a donation to a charity on behalf of the worst person you know?” asks Kevin Dean, host of “I Was Told There Would Be Snacks: A Nonprofit Podcast,” a show that hosts discussions on how nonprofits and funders do business. Dr. Witkowski recently joined the podcast for the episode “Revenge is a Dish Best Served Donated” to discuss spite philanthropy. 

After President Trump’s inauguration, citizens upset with the incoming administration’s policies  gave in record numbers to organizations serving women, immigrants, and the LGBTQ+ community. Fundraisers coined the term “rage philanthropy” to note this phenomenal flood of charitable donations. Dean and Dr. Witkowski discuss the implications of revenge-focused giving, and how organizations might remain nonpartisan when donations become political. 

Dr. Witkowski discusses how technology and social media have changed peoples’ everyday habits, and how this should be reflected in how nonprofit leaders analyze giving motivations. “When we first started on social media, there was a sense that people would become better at interacting, be more civil… increasingly what we’re finding is that the opposite is happening.” Instead of individuals becoming more responsible on social media,, there is a decline of civility in our real-world interactions. 

Examples of spite philanthropy have been appearing more frequently in popular culture as well. In December, Dr. Witkowski was quoted in a MarketWatch article on how “spite philanthropy” factors into the HBO show Succession, when Cousin Greg is told that his inheritance will be given to Greenpeace as a consequence of teaming up with the Roys’ side of the family. Other nonprofits should take note of how Greenpeace handled the moment. The organization tweeted “We're anxious to see how Greg's lawsuit plays out. In the meantime, you can piss off one of your own relatives by making an early #GivingTuesday gift to @GreenpeaceUSA right now!”  

Read Dr. Witkowski’s article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy, and listen to his recent podcast appearance here