Letting donors see the people they help

Some charities are pioneering virtual reality technology to give potential supporters an inside view of where and how their money will help, reports Susannah Birkwood

Use of VR, such as in Amnesty's Aleppo campaign, can encourage pubiic involvement
Use of VR, such as in Amnesty's Aleppo campaign, can encourage pubiic involvement

On an average day, the children dying of malaria in the remote villages of the Democratic Republic of the Congo are unlikely to be on the minds of most pedestrians in the streets of Amsterdam.

But a project from the Dutch branch of Medecins Sans Frontieres might be changing this. Since August, the humanitarian organisation has been using virtual reality technology to enable the public to experience what it's like inside one of its hospital projects in North Kivu province in the east of the DRC.

It does this by equipping its fundraisers with low-cost headsets, known as Google Cardboard - these are folded cardboard viewers, resembling spectacles, into the rear of which a smartphone can be inserted. Wearers of the headsets can then view 3D videos played on the phone by means of a free mobile app called 360Heros.

MSF's video is narrated by Emma, one of its doctors in North Kivu, who describes the help the hospital provides to the local community. "If this project wasn't here, a lot of people would probably die," she says. The piercing cry of a baby in the footage sounds to the viewer as if it is close by.

"One of MSF's biggest challenges is to make people understand realities that are so far away from them that they can't really relate to them," says Olga Victorie, audio- visual communications officer at MSF Holland. "So this is a great way to bring things closer to them."

The charity, which believes it is the first in the Netherlands to deploy virtual reality technology to depict real-life events, has so far used it mainly for face-to-face fundraising on the doorstep, in the street and at festivals. The costs of piloting the technology have been relatively low: the camera cost EUR300, the audio equipment EUR400 and the Google Cardboard headsets less than EUR6 each.

'Empathy machine'

Charities in the UK have also been using virtual reality technology. In May, Amnesty International launched its virtual reality Aleppo campaign to show people, by means of 360-degree photographs captured by local citizen journalists, the destruction caused by the barrel bombs that were dropped on the besieged Syrian city.

Amnesty, which uses recycled smartphones and low-cost plastic headsets, has invested £5,000 in the programme, according to Reuben Steains, the organisation's innovation manager. Testing of the campaign has so far been restricted to a handful of in-house fundraisers in London, Manchester, Leeds and Bristol, but Amnesty has just agreed to increase the staffing of the programme to a total of 60 fundraisers nationwide.

"The power of VR is that it's an empathy machine, and empathy is a precursor to action," says Steains. "It's a way of putting your eyes into the eyes of someone else, so you can see what they're seeing and hopefully feel what they're feeling."

Amnesty's pioneering UK initiative came several months after the United Nations released its own take on the VR trend. In January, it launched Clouds Over Sidra, a short VR documentary about a day in the life of a 12-year-old Syrian girl in a refugee camp in Jordan. It was screened at international events including the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Doubling donations

So does VR boost income? The New Zealand branch of Unicef, the United Nations children's agency, says donations doubled after street fundraisers with VR headsets showed Clouds Over Sidra to people on the streets of Auckland. Amnesty International UK was unable to measure whether its VR campaign increased donations, says Steains, although it did record a 9 per cent year-on-year increase in sign-ups on the street in the three months after the campaign was launched.

MSF Holland says that sign-ups rose by 50 per cent after its fundraisers started using the VR headsets, and "skyrocketed" after it reduced the length of the video from more than two minutes to 90 seconds. In four months, it has recruited 4,500 new donors through VR fundraising and sent them their own Google Cardboard headsets as a joining gift. Several donors actually complained about this, says Victorie, saying they would prefer MSF to spend the money on programme work.

MSF Holland hopes to film projects in South Sudan and Yemen next year to add to the programme, and to use VR at major donor events and, eventually, with its corporate supporters. Amnesty will decide in March whether to continue its programme.

It is not yet clear whether VR will become a mainstream fundraising tool.

Victorie believes that all charities will eventually use VR in their face-to-face programmes, but also recognises that its popularity among MSF's new supporters is mainly because of its novelty. "In the future, you won't be able to touch people in the same way as you can now," she concedes. "At the moment you can impress them with it."

Steains goes further: "If everyone did VR, it would kill it. Currently, most people on the street have never had a VR experience, but if the technology starts to become saturated, it will have a limited shelf life and people won't be intrigued any more."

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