Is Virtual Reality the Next Big Thing in Fundraising?

Virtual reality has been receiving a lot of attention lately — could the technology become a useful tool for nonprofits?

Immersive storytelling through VR, which places audiences directly into an experience or event, is on the rise, and is already being used to shed light on multiple world issues. Now, some nonprofits are looking at VR as a potential marketing tool that can bring awareness to their cause and attract donors.

Last year, Amnesty International launched a virtual reality street fundraising campaign, transporting Londoners to the streets of war-torn Aleppo in Syria using VR viewers. Amnesty reported a strong emotional response from the public and said the organization saw a 16 percent increase in donations.

“The headsets are so immersive because you can’t help draw comparisons between the street you’re in and the street you see,” said Nina Franklin, one of Amnesty’s street fundraisers.

“The VR sets anchor everything: statistics, emotions, stories. Suddenly everything ‘over there’ is so vivid and real. That’s the power of VR.”

More and more organizations seem to be exploring the potential of the technology. The United Nations launched its first VR film at the 2015 World Economic Forum to highlight the plight of a young Syrian girl living in a refugee camp, while Charity:Water used VR headsets at their 10th annual charity gala to transport their NYC guests to Ethiopia and into the shoes of a 13-year-old girl who has to walk several hours to get water.

VR has increasingly become an effective way to garner empathy and promote social good. Immersive journalist and virtual reality pioneer Nonny de la Peña debuted her first VR piece, Hunger in Los Angeles, in 2012. The story dealt with the true story of a diabetic’s collapse due to starvation while waiting in line at a food bank. Her newest work Project Syria places views in the middle of a terrorist bombing.

“This is such a visceral empathy generator. It can make people feel in a way that nothing, no other platform I've ever worked in can successfully do in this way,” De la Peña told Engadget.

David Darg is the co-founder of Los Angeles-based Ryot, a content studio that creates documentary-style VR films, all which feature a call to action. Ryot’s VR film The Nepal Quake immerses viewers in the aftermath of the 2015 Nepal earthquake. At the end of the video, the viewer is invited to visit the Nepal Quake Project website to make a donation to relief efforts.

"You register it as an experience that you have rather than something that you watch, so you have a higher level of empathy for what you're seeing," Darg told NPR.

Although the VR market is still very small, it certainly appears primed to make a move into mainstream consumer culture very soon. In late 2015, The New York Times released a virtual reality mobile app that can be used with the Google Cardboard viewer to experience content such as The Displaced, about children driven from their homes due to war, and The Contenders, about the presidential campaign. Both Oculus and Sony are set to release high-end consumer headsets this year, and even Mattel has said it will soon be out with an update to their inexpensive VR View-Master. Last month, it was revealed that Apple has created a new VR research team, and this week’s TED Conference will feature several talks and exhibits on the technology.

A recent report from Tractica has projected that more than 200 million VR headsets will be sold worldwide by 2020.

Ken Harper, the director of the Newhouse Center for Global Engagement at Syracuse University, told NPR that once virtual reality goes mainstream, corporations, nonprofits, and media organizations will no doubt jump on board, many using the technology to sell a product or promote a cause.

VR technology could also potentially be a means to demonstrate an organization’s impact. Access Youth Academy Development Director Ryan Ginard writes on TechSoup: “In 10 years’ time, you might be uploading a VR video online along with your grant application as one of the initial steps of an assessment of your suitability for operational and programmatic support.”