Nonprofit Virtual Reality photo 3; From Charity: Water's The Source

How Nonprofit Virtual Reality Motivates Social Action

Featured Image Source: Engadget


For nonprofits, video brings a human side to your mission, so that people feel emotionally invested in your cause. Want to take this storytelling to the next level? Look to virtual reality.


Oculus believes in VR’s potential for nonprofits: As part of their project VR for Good, they paired nonprofits with filmmakers to create virtual reality films.


VR filmmaker Chris Milk even called virtual reality the “empathy machine” during his TED talk. He noted, “[VR] connects people in a way that I’ve never seen before in any other form of media.”


Virtual reality lets users feel as if they are living, not just seeing, an experience. It transcends international borders, and builds tangible relationships between users and the people your nonprofit helps.


How can you use nonprofit virtual reality? Take a look at these different approaches.


Focus on a main character  


According to the identifiable victim effect, people are more likely to help a known individual than an anonymous group. Statistics are important, but people won’t pay attention to numbers alone. If users can follow one person’s day-to-day hardships, they will want to do all they can to help that person.


“Growing Up Girl” by ONE focuses on Monica, a 10-year-old girl living near the border between Tanzania and Kenya. Instead of just saying how poverty affects Monica’s life, the 360-degree video walks through her daily challenges. Her home has no electricity and therefore no light, so she leaves home every night to do her homework. In VR’s immersive environment, users feel as if they are living Monica’s struggles.




Nonprofit virtual reality can even drive people to tears. That’s what charity: water’s “The Source” did at their 2016 charity gala. Attendees gasped as 13-year-old Selam from Ethiopia collected leech-infested water. They cheered when charity: water drilled a well for her and her family. VR puts people directly into someone else’s experiences, creating a sense of empathy. It certainly worked for fundraising: People donated .4 million that evening. The audience truly wanted to help Selam—and that translated into help for many people just like her.


Immerse users in a multichapter world   


Virtual reality lets users control their content: They choose what to watch, and where to focus. Take advantage of this by having multiple interactive chapters in one experience.


An example is “Four Walls” by the International Refugee Committee. Narrated by Rashida Jones, the experience focuses on Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Users can choose among different 360-degree videos about refugee life. By letting users pick which episodes they watch, VR allows them to feel more in-control and therefore more engaged.




Nonprofit Virtual Reality photo 1; Navigation screen for the chapters in “Four Walls”

Navigation screen for the chapters in “Four Walls” | Source: Storybench



Fear of the Sky” by Amnesty International U.K. focuses on the aftermath of barrel bombings in Syria. It combines 360-degree video, 3D graphics, photography, and voiceover narration. This multimedia approach creates even more immersion for VR. Plus, people can view the experience either online or in VR headsets, which allows for more accessibility.


Drive social action beyond your video


With its powerful ability to connect people, nonprofit virtual reality can drive action, not just awareness.


An easy way to do this is adding a call-to-action button in your video. For example, Fear of the Sky has a separate chapter with “Share” and “Donate” buttons. But filmmakers at the United Nations want to think beyond donations.


Gabo Arora, Creative Director and Senior Advisor at the UN, hopes that VR will go from “a tool of awareness-raising to one of actual change.”


His award-winning VR film Clouds Over Sidra builds an empathetic connection between Sidra and the audience. But Arora didn’t stop there: The UN and Artscape created The Sidra Project, an initiative that connects people who have seen the film with Syrian refugees in Canada. In the program’s pilot phase, 73% of people reported taking action, whether it was sponsoring a family or providing housing for refugees. The takeaway here? Your audience will empathize with your characters and want to help them, so you should minimize the gap between want and action.




Arora had an ambitious vision for My Mother’s Wing. Set in the Gaza Strip, the VR film follows a Palestinian mother who lost her two children due to an Israeli shelling attack. It isn’t just another sob story, though. According to Vrse co-founder Patrick Milling Smith, the film focuses on larger  themes such as “healing and hope” during adversity and “the factors that contribute to cycles of violence, and how to disrupt them.”

Nonprofit Virtual Reality photo 2; My Mother’s Wing

My Mother’s Wing | Source: VR Focus


Arora didn’t just want awareness for the Israeli-Palestine conflict; he wanted Israelis and Palestinians to better understand each other. In 2016, he expressed plans to show My Mother’s Wing to Israeli citizens, so they could see how the conflict impacts Palestinians.


While not all nonprofits have a mission as bold as Arora’s, My Mother’s Wing demonstrates that VR can push for social action. It shows what world issues your organization tackles, and how you fit into the bigger picture. By aligning with broader themes, as My Mother’s Wing does, virtual reality can turn your nonprofit into a tool for social discussion.


It’s not just about donations


Nonprofit virtual reality creates empathy for your mission and for the people you serve. However, empathy isn’t the only piece of the puzzle. VR also promotes your organization as a social catalyst.


Christopher Fabian, co-founder of UNICEF’s Innovation Unit, believes that VR can become a tool for collaboration, for people to think critically about world problems.  


“We can design activities that … ask people to use their brains and their hands and their capacity to help us solve certain problems,” said Fabian.


Arora sees VR as education not just for the general public, but also for the world’s decision-makers. He believes that it can help international politicians understand the people affected by their actions.


While the future of VR may be unknown, it has potential to foster informed social and political decisions. Virtual reality is about more than just fundraising. It places your organization into larger social discussions—because your nonprofit’s voice deserves to be heard.  


Kristen Lee Video Production InternKristen Lee is a Content Marketing Intern at Green Buzz Agency. She reports on the latest trends in video marketing and virtual reality. She wants Rashida Jones to narrate her life.

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