How Virtual Reality Is Inspiring Donors to Dig Deep for Charitable Causes

A 360-degree view of the world stirs empathy and action

One evening last December, 400 men and women in tuxedos and gowns met at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to take a trip to a small village in Ethiopia. Few of them had ever been to the East African country before, and while they were scheduled to depart that evening, nobody had a plane ticket. In fact, they wouldn't need one for the nine-minute virtual visit they were about to make.

The group was gathering at the Met for an annual black-tie fundraising banquet benefiting Charity: Water, a New York nonprofit that builds water projects around the world, providing access to clean water for thousands of people every year.

After dinner and before the fundraising portion of the evening began, volunteers from the organization passed around Samsung Gear VR headsets so attendees could watch a virtual reality movie documenting a week in the life of a 13-year-old girl, Selam, and her family who were getting clean water for the first time. The video begins with the girl—whose mother died a year earlier—collecting water she fears is full of leeches and diseases. It ends with a team of workers arriving by truck to drill the well before water gushes into the hot desert sky.

"You could hear a pin drop," said the filmmaker, Jamie Pent, from Charity: Water. "I was wandering around watching people watch it. There was this one guy who just flew out of his seat, and he was just like, 'Honey, honey, turn around!' And he was talking out loud [to his wife]. And there were others who would reach out for their spouse and would grab their hands, and I would know where they were in the film because all of a sudden there would be cheering when they hit water. I saw people take [their headsets] off with tears in their eyes."


        Charity: Water gave donors a VR experience at this black-tie gala in New York. Photo: Adam Mason

Later that night, donors committed to giving $2.4 million, much more than Charity: Water had expected. That was the first time but not the last, Pent said, that the film led to higher-than-expected donations. During a visit to Charity: Water's office, one donor, who had already committed to giving $60,000, watched the film and was so moved by the story that he gave $400,000 instead.

Thousands of people have now seen the film—which was produced by—using Samsung Gear VR headsets. Pent said another 1.5 million have watched it on Facebook on mobile and desktop devices, and around 30,000 more viewing it on YouTube (you can watch it below). According to Pent, letting people be virtually present makes all the difference.

"It's so hard to understand the water crisis when you just hear statistics, and it's about individuals who are going through this just because of where they live," Pent said. "Any one of us could have been born there, and we weren't. But we have the ability to help."

VR works when it comes to causes

Charity: Water is just one of a number of organizations that have become champions of virtual reality for bringing awareness to causes worldwide, evoking empathy through immersive experiences. Last year, Matter Unlimited VR traveled with former President Bill Clinton and his daughter, Chelsea Clinton, to document the Clinton Global Initiative's work in places like Tanzania and Kenya. According to Matter, the film has amassed 150 million media impressions and 1.2 million Facebook views.

Yet another film, from the international education nonprofit Pencils of Promise, transported its audience into a small classroom in Ghana to show how education is transforming the rural community of Toklokpo. In the 90-second film, viewers get to see what it's like to learn while sitting under a mango tree or in a dilapidated building. The viewers then see students use the new building thanks to Pencils of Promise. The film, which debuted at the Pencils of Promise 2015 gala, helped the organization raise $1.9 million, and officials say it's continued to be an important tool for securing new donors and corporate partners.

While films such as these can be time-intensive and sometimes costly to make (Charity: Water's film cost around $100,000), groups that have used VR to support fundraising efforts say the emerging medium has paid off.

"Our perspective is this area is only getting more interesting for causes, and the companies and organizations investing in it will see awesome returns," said Emily Hawkins, director of partnerships and business development at CrowdRise, a Detroit-based tech company co-founded by actor Edward Norton and focused on fundraising through crowdsourcing. "The more you can put the donor or activist in the story in a powerful way, the greater the impact is going to be. And VR is just an exciting way to do that."

Last fall during a Giving Tuesday campaign, CrowdRise used augmented reality to build a virtual "Giving Tower"—which served as a visual representation of the impact of giving—that grew taller as people around the world donated to various causes. Viewers could aim their smartphone cameras at a flat object to see the tower appear in augmented reality. And as it grew, the tower unlocked virtual reality films for viewers to watch to better understand causes around the world. By the end, CrowdRise had helped raise more than $6 million for various nonprofits.

Helping nonprofits create VR films

Having seen the potential impact of VR, other companies are creating new ways to help nonprofits make films. Even Oculus VR—a high-end virtual reality platform owned by Facebook—wants in. In mid-May, the company announced a new initiative called VR for Good. Along with a pilot program aimed at getting high school students interested in making VR films by documenting their communities, Oculus is launching a similar program for nonprofits called 360 Bootcamp for Nonprofits.

The program starts this summer and will pair 10 "rising filmmakers" with 10 nonprofits to create films highlighting various social causes, according to Facebook, which says it will supply the equipment, travel budget, mentorship and additional editing support along the way. The films that come out of the boot camp will debut during the Sundance Film Festival in 2017.


        Clouds Over Sidra has won international acclaim for documenting the lives of Syrian refugees in Jordan. U.N.

To illustrate the power of the medium and the need for more VR films for causes, the company cited Clouds Over Sidra, a 360-degree documentary about a young Syrian girl named Sidra who lives with her family in a refugee camp in Jordan. The film, shot by Gabo Arora, helped UNICEF raise $3.8 billion, almost twice what the U.N. program had projected.

'Closer to the story'

While nonprofits are teaming up with a number of different companies to produce such films, one of the most prominent in the space is RYOT, a 4-year-old startup that was acquired by AOL last month for an undisclosed price. The company, founded by Bryn Mooser, films 360-degree videos around the world. RYOT has already received a number of accolades, including an Academy Award nomination for Body Team 12, a 360-degree documentary filmed in Liberia during the 2014 Ebola crisis.

RYOT—which shot the movie for Pencils of Promise—has also worked with brands on other cause-focused films, partnering with Pepsi for a campaign to drive awareness about sustainability and with Walgreens for a piece about a vitamin enrichment program in Uganda. The company is also in the middle of a multipart series for Save the Children. And, just last week, it posted a 360-degree video shot in the Arctic to Facebook that lets viewers "play with" polar bears while learning from Greenpeace about the dangers of global warming.

Every RYOT film is attached to some sort of call-to-action, allowing viewers to not just passively consume, but to take part in causes they're inspired by.

"I think the most powerful thing about the medium is presence," said RYOT CMO Molly Swenson. "And that’s something filmmakers for decades have been trying to get and that photographers have. I think everyone has a desire to get closer to a story. You see that in news, with the town crier, with the paper, the radio and the news in your pocket you can access at any time. Now with VR, it’s all trending to getting closer to the story where something is happening."

Of course, VR is still a relatively niche medium. While Google has distributed more than 5 million of its Google Cardboard headsets, few people have tried more pricey gear like the $600 Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive. And while Samsung Gear is much less expensive at $100, it also requires an Android phone, which many people don't have. (Apple has yet to release any sort of hardware for VR.)

While virtual reality is still in its infancy, both in terms of shooting and viewing, news outlets, brands and nonprofits are experimenting with ways to grow it. RYOT is expanding by combining resources with The Huffington Post, also owned by AOL. Google is building a headset that's bound to be more immersive than a piece of cardboard. And Charity: Water, proud of its first film, is considering making more.

After Charity: Water's film was finished, founder Scott Harrison returned to the Ethiopian village to give Selam and her family a chance to see the VR film firsthand. After finishing the film, she took off the headset and beamed.

"She took it off and simply said, 'Beautiful,'" Pent said.


        The locals who appeared in Charity: Water's film in Ethiopia watched themselves in VR. Photo: Charity: Water

Read more about how creativity and tech are fueling today's nonprofits in Adweek's Cause Marketing Report.

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.