Virtual Reality: The New Nonprofit “Marketing to Millennials” Technique

Posted by: Ilana Bodker

Originally, Virtual Reality (VR) was advertised as a means of entertainment to give users relief from the real world and transport them to a different one. Now, large nonprofits are doing the opposite — using VR to build awareness by immersing users into the reality of underwater pollution, third-world refugee camps and other situations they would be unable to experience otherwise. More so than static videos, photos or presentations, the 360 views of VR gives its users a shockingly lifelike understanding of why their donations are necessary.

“[VR] works harder for us than any other medium,” said Timothy Parry, head of brand for Alzheimer’s Research UK, to Digiday. “You can put people right in the middle of the issue you are dealing with, something a conventional camera can’t quite do.”

At a Wall Street fundraiser for educational nonprofit Pencils of Promise, the organization created a replica classroom of a school in rural Ghana. Pencils of Promise encouraged its guests to use the available VR headsets to walk through the 16-foot-wide space and experience, for two minutes, the lives of Ghanaian schoolchildren. When they were able to see firsthand where their money was going, individuals were much more likely to donate. That night, the nonprofit successfully raised more than $2 million.

The use of VR is particularly making a difference among Millennial donors. Despite the plethora of negative myths and stigmas surrounding them, they are a generation set on making a difference in the world around them. And, rather than making random or one-off donations, they tend to integrate causes they care about into their daily routines and purchase behaviors. As VR continues to innovate and make itself affordable and present in these routines, they will find even greater opportunities.

What environmental charity Greenpeace used VR for in its Spring 2017 magazine is a great example. It utilized Blippar, a VR app, to promote their ocean plastics campaign. The app allowed readers to see the ocean debris from Japan’s 2011 tsunami come to life before their eyes, instilling empathy and interest in supporters (many of which are Millennials).

Nonprofits find that the increase in empathy caused by VR is what makes it such an important tool for charities. VR users get the stark impression that these people and places are real, which motivates them to take real action toward solving the problem. 

“As a culture, we have become very comfortable with cameras – comfortable being on camera and of viewing the lives of others on camera – but somehow the lens, or perhaps the screen itself, has become a barrier to empathy,” said Director of Empathy Karen Faith, who works in Barkley’s Moonshot Innovation Lab. “It is a paradox to have so much documentation of others’ experiences, and yet so little understanding. We are drowning in data and starving for insight. Virtual reality, however, seems to cross this boundary effortlessly, putting the observer in the first person position.”

Yet, there are still skeptics.

One such skeptic is Paul Bloom, Yale psychology professor and author of Against Empathy. He claims that if this tactic becomes commonplace, too much empathy can lead to exhaustion and burnout. Bloom believes that the way to seek donors is to make them feel good about their philanthropy rather than impelling them to experience others’ suffering.

Additionally, the technology needed for these VR experiences is both costly and time-consuming. However, those charities that have used it report feeling that VR lengthens their campaigns, such as the National Autistic Society (NAS) head of campaigns, Tom Madders. NAS utilized VR headsets to allow non-autistic people what it is like to live with autism, which Madders felt was worth the expense for the provided value.

Will these “empathy machines” become a staple of nonprofit fundraising? At this stage, Virtual Reality’s impact in increasing donations points to yes. With VR’s proven power with Millennials and its potential to be a powerful marketing tool across consumer generations, agencies must offer this technology in order to get ahead. It will attract not only attention, but greater client opportunities.

About Ilana Bodker

Ilana's background in publishing combined with a lifelong love of writing led her to her interest in advertising and marketing. She served as Junior Editor for Jeff Fromm and Angie Read's upcoming "Marketing to Gen...See Ilana's full bio.