Charities are increasingly turning to virtual reality experiences of lives in developing countries to motivate support, but critics say it’s creating poverty porn. By Jo Hartley.

Virtual reality for charities

An image from Oxfam’s VR film Evelyn’s Story.
An image from Oxfam’s VR film Evelyn’s Story.
Credit: Nichole Sobecki / Panos / OxfamAUS

Eleven-year-old Evelyn walks across the dusty Kenyan terrain, an empty container swinging from her arm. Her dress is brightly coloured and her feet are bare. Her melodic voice accompanies you on the long walk to fetch water for her family.

“Every day I look at the sun as it rises,” she says. “It makes life so hard for us. When there is water in my village, life flows. It feeds our animals and keeps us well. When we are healthy, we can go to school and learn and grow. But finding water in our village is a struggle. We only get clean water two hours every eight days, but there is never enough for everyone.”

Oxfam Australia’s virtual reality film effectively transports viewers into life in the poorest region of Kenya, Turkana County. Walking alongside Evelyn, viewers sense her daily struggle. When there’s no water left at the pumping station, they feel her despair.

“A few years ago, our internal team watched virtual reality films about the situations in Syria and Palestine,” says Oxfam Australia’s director of public engagement, Pam Anders.

Virtual reality film – typically viewed via a strap-on headset – delivers a much more powerful experience than a standard film or images. By providing the illusion of a 360-degree environment, in which the user can look about with a turn of their head, VR creates a stronger feeling of connection with its content than a projected film.

“We realised how immersive and powerful these were as a communication channel and started exploring how we could do this ourselves,” Anders says. “We wanted a hero in our story to demonstrate genuine need and urgency, as well as to generate empathy and connection.”

The Oxfam film has been viewed at conferences, corporate facilities, shopping centres and trail-walker events. It’s available online to anyone with a VR headset. So far, it’s been successful in bringing new donors to Oxfam, as well as renewing memberships.

“The film has proven far more effective than traditional campaigns because people feel connected to our work and immersed in the experience. They feel compelled to donate and empowered to see where their donations are going,” says Anders.

Might virtual reality be charity’s future?

At a 2015 UNICEF fundraising conference, attendees watched Clouds Over Sidra, a VR film that follows 12-year-old Sidra, a Syrian refugee living in the Zaatari camp in Jordan. The event raised $3.8 billion, over 70 per cent more than projected, and one in six people donated after watching the film – twice the normal rate.

Another 2015 fundraising gala, for the non-profit organisation Charity: Water, which works to provide sources of clean water in developing countries, transported attendees to an Ethiopian village, where they witnessed the impact of a clean drinking water supply on the community.

Similarly, Pencils of Promise recently transported their audience to a small classroom in Toklokpo, Ghana, to demonstrate how education funds are transforming the rural community. Both events raised millions of dollars.

Daniel Lalor is founder and director of Bonsai VR, Australia’s first virtual reality company exclusively working with charities. He says VR is a powerful tool for philanthropy.

“In a sector that relies on connecting with people to drive empathy and emotion, virtual reality presents a unique opportunity for charities,” he says. “The immersive qualities of well-produced content can transport supporters to locations and environments charities could only dream of taking people en masse.”

Such places include dangerous locations such as Aleppo, where viewers might witness the devastating effects of barrel bombing, or refugee camps, where the terrible conditions endured and the scale of the operations can be better apprehended.

“It’s about creating situations for people to experience safely, but that drive the same empathy and emotion as if they were actually there,” says Lalor. “The aim is to make content that drives action, and not just another piece of entertainment.”

Lalor says that the right piece of content, targeted at the right audience, can drive empathy on a higher level. His recent research with Queensland University of Technology has helped quantify this.

“We compared the effectiveness of virtual reality content with traditional face-to-face canvassing. The preliminary study results indicated that the content drove a deeper connection to the cause and better brand recall of the charity, amongst other things.”

“Charity VR” has its critics. Earlier this month, Facebook’s chief executive officer, Mark Zuckerberg, and his head of social VR, Rachel Franklin, released a VR clip with smiling animated versions of themselves floating above the devastation caused in Puerto Rico by hurricane Maria.

The clip, which aimed to demonstrate Facebook’s partnerships with, and contributions to, charitable organisations helping with the recovery effort, wasn’t well received. Critics slammed it as thoughtless and uncaring, and branded Zuckerberg as a “heartless billionaire” who was exploiting disaster. He issued an apology shortly after.

Similarly, in Australia in 2017, eight chief executives participated in the Vinnies CEO Sleepout event by watching a VR film depicting the lives of homeless people. When footage of the executives sitting in an airconditioned office wearing VR headsets was tweeted, it, too, brought a major backlash.

People condemned the disconnect between the expensive technology and the experience of homelessness, and mocked the executives for being completely out of touch. Others branded it poverty porn.

Nonetheless, charities and non-government organisations report improved responses to appeals employing VR films.

A 2017 Nielsen study underscored the effectiveness of virtual reality content in communicating charity brands to consumers. Eighty-four per cent of viewers in the study demonstrated better brand recall, compared with 53 per cent who viewed embedded online advertising, the latter known as “midroll” as it appears in the middle of other viewing content. The research showed that 48 per cent of VR consumers were likely to donate, compared with 38 per cent otherwise.

Similarly, 51 per cent increased their likelihood to recommend the featured charity after viewing it in VR, compared with only 42 per cent for midroll.

American company Epic Foundation, which connects donors with global non-profit youth organisations, recently launched a collection of 12 VR films. Each film depicts how donations are helping young beneficiaries in areas such as education or healthcare.

Organisations depicted include the Haven House Children’s Hospice, a British care facility for terminally ill children;, which offers professional computer training to young people from low-income communities; and the Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action, which lobbies for investment in women’s and children’s health in Mumbai’s urban slums.

“Virtual reality short films further the idea that technology can connect people with important projects, putting you on the front lines, even if you’re thousands of miles away,” says Epic Foundation’s chief executive and founder, Alexandre Mars.

“People don’t often feel moved by hard numbers, like the fact that the average life expectancy in some Mumbai slums is 39 years old. A 360-degree video can actually introduce you to these communities, and prompt you to take action.”

Research aggregated by data portal Statista currently forecasts that by 2018, virtual reality users will number 171 million worldwide, with a predicted 82 million VR headsets in use. Virtual reality may not completely replace traditional videos, written appeals or face-to-face conversations. Likewise, it will never substitute for the expertise of people and their knowledge of the field. However, as it becomes more mainstream, it’s only a matter of time before more charities harness its storytelling power.

But does a virtual experience of poverty, persecution or disaster always result in people being more engaged?

“Some people don’t want to be confronted or, in some cases, ‘emotionally hijacked’ with highly emotional information and encounters,” says Jocelyn Brewer, a Sydney psychologist with an expertise in the impacts of technology.

“A film could be triggering based on attitudes or even past experiences and, if it’s watched at the wrong time, it may cause people to feel overwhelmed with how many issues there are to contribute to.”

Brewer says we can’t know how people are going to respond. She suggests this kind of technology should be about empowering people to make a difference and contribution, rather than simply creating awareness and becoming potentially overwhelming.

As the sun sets and the film closes on another Kenyan day, 11-year-old Evelyn splashes in a small tub with her younger sibling. Their giggles fill the air and their joy is contagious. Ongoing funding has delivered a solar-powered water pump to their village.

“Every day I look at the sun as it rises, but today it is different,” Evelyn says. “My mother says that without water there is no life. Now each new day brings clean new water for everyone. Today life flows everywhere. And for tomorrow I have hope.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 28, 2017 as "Virtual plea charity".

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Jo Hartley is a freelance journalist.

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