Virtual Chi-arity

It’s 2018: people are 3D printing food, a robot has been granted citizenship, and charity organisations have started transporting prospective donors into real life crisis situations to generate empathy.

Okay, so maybe they haven’t gone that far yet – but they have started using technologies such as virtual reality (VR) to reach donors, and it’s basically the same thing. In fact, recent years have seen a surge in the adoption of emerging technologies by not-for-profit companies more so than any other industry sectors – with an aim focusing on immersive technologies showcasing the impact of charitable giving. Now, if you’re unsure what virtual reality is or what it can do, take a look at the Clouds Over Sidra experience created by Within in partnership with UNICEF – all you need is your smartphone!


Ultimate Empathy Machine

Immersing you in the life of a refugee Syrian girl, UNICEF uses this VR experience to generate a sense of empathy and encourage users to help change Sidra’s life by donating. However, with the immersive capabilities of VR evidently extending well beyond familiar gaming and sales applications into that of an ultimate empathy driving machine, there has been increasing scepticism surrounding how much empathy generated from virtual machines is actually reality, and the costs of such a relatively niche medium.

In particular, the Australian Charities and Not-for-Profits Commission (ACNC) recognises the concern donors have about whether their money is going towards the cause the charity is servicing, or running/administration costs – such as purchasing and maintaining VR software and hardware in this case. Alarmingly, the same ACNC factsheet states that Australia has no standards or clear definitions to guide which costs should be classified as ‘service related’ or ‘administration’.

Now, I’d like to think I’m not as gullible as Donald Trump, but I’ll be the first to admit I have often thought about where my charitable donations are going. And in the case of VR, it’s hard not to wonder when mid-range headsets like Samsung Gear cost around $130 each, and high-end devices such as the Oculus Rift are $599 a pop.

Take, for example, a fundraising event by Charity: Water where 400 guests were provided Samsung Gear headsets totalling $52,000 – and that’s not even including the phones you need inside acting as the screen.

With the message in Charity: Water’s VR experience highlighting $30 can give one person clean water, that’s a lot of water spent on headsets. In fact, had they just played the video on one shared screen, roughly 1733 people could have been given clean water. So, the question is, are the immersive properties of VR more empathy-evoking than traditional methods like a shared projector screen?

Short answer – they really are!

Yes, there’s a whole lot of information out there urging us to ask “how much do charities actually spend on pursuing their causes?”, but data shows that VR investments really do boost charitable giving. From increased signups and donations rates to actual increases in pledged amounts as a direct result of VR experiences, it really does lend itself to the ‘ultimate empathy machine’ title.

So what is it that makes VR so successful for charity applications? Aside from being highly entertaining, VR is renowned for its ability to generate awareness and empathy through its immersive properties. And with awareness and empathy identified as a significant forerunner of donation intent, the opportunities for VR and the future of philanthropy really are endless. In fact, research shows that when concerning individuals who are not responsible for their situation – such as in the VR experiences used by charities, empathy has increased capabilities of increasing donation intentWe will no longer have to take that imaginary leap into “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes”, VR can now show users exactly what it is like and help close the emotional gap.

Even more excitingly, trends show a decrease in VR hardware costs over the coming years, and with advancements in modern consumer VR – such as Google Cardboard only setting you back $15 – 2018 has been dubbed the year of VR 2.0. Not only is this good news for consumers, it also means that charities using VR to drive empathy can spend less money on technologies and more money where it’s needed!  

Always a downside

So what does the increased adoption of VR mean for society? Although the monetary benefits of charities using VR are obvious, there are some alarming negatives – such as psychical health risks of motion sickness and loss of spatial awareness, psychological risks including the effects of witnessing confronting material, and even concerns over the deceptive or persuasive marketing techniques companies could exploit through VR – highlighting ethical issues for charitable uses of such a medium to compel users to donate.

So, with such major risks then also coupled with society’s increasing dependency on technologies, should we embrace this new form of charity encounter, or do these advancements indicate a future out of touch with reality?  

According to Chris Milk – producer of VR content such as Clouds Over Sidra, we should embrace it. Acknowledging that we have just scraped the surface of VR’s true power, Milk talks about how although VR is just a machine, it is through this machine we become more compassionate, more empathetic, and more connected – ultimately, “we become more human”. And isn’t that really what charities are trying to achieve? To generate compassion, drive empathy and connect humans to promote welfare around the world.

So, if you ask me, I think VR is pretty cool. And as long as the donations continue to exceed the administrative costs, I’d gladly participate in a VR experience – anything to make those street encounters less boring, right?

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