Virtual reality immerses us into worlds vastly different from our own. In the process, it can help us understand other places and each other better than ever before. VR videos have an amazing power to communicate personal experiences and, steadily, charities are increasing their use of the emerging technology to drive engagement and donation campaigns.

In 2015, the United Nations released Clouds Over Sidra, a 360-degree VR film that allows users to step into the shoes of a 12-year-old Syrian refugee as she experiences a typical day-to-day life in a Jordanian refugee camp. The immersive story allows viewers to gain a first-person experience into the everyday hardships that refugees face. It also helped the U.N. exceed its $2.3 billion goal by 65 percent. Since the success of the exhibit, a range of charities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and nonprofits have been following in their footsteps.

Smile Train, for example, is a charity that provides monetary support for the provisions and corrective surgery that children with cleft palates and lips need. The campaign’s VR videos takes viewers in the story of two Indian children as they live with untreated cleft lips to the final outcome of receiving cosmetic surgery. It starts off in a village, but the landscape is hot, sandy and decimated to emphasize the link between deprivation and the children’s facial defects. Users wear cardboard VR goggles to look around and see the world Nisha and Vikas live in as if they are there. They experience uninviting glances and dried-out buildings. 

As both videos continue, they go on a journey across India which is meant to offer a feeling of hope. At the end of Nisha’s VR video, the hope turns into joy when the viewer turns around and sees the child’s family and neighbors smiling at them and their new smile. The entire experience is meant to capture feelings of understanding and empathy for children with this similar experience.

Susannah Schafer, the CEO of Smile Train, says, “When you think of the life that a child… who went with a cleft that was untreated for so long, there’s a lot of emotion in that.” 

However, Schafer also emphasizes that the VR videos are merely one story to illustrate on the work they do in over 85 countries. She says it allows charitable givers to understand how their money is being put to use. Schafer also says that VR videos have become well-received by users at events, conferences and fundraising events.

Greenpeace is another charity that has used its VR app as a sounding board for its campaigns. Videos show how climate change is affecting places like the Amazon and Antarctica. Yet another organization, the World Wildlife Fund witnessed a 50 percent increase in donor sign ups after its VR Tiger Experience campaign.

Some think that the increase in engagement may have to do with the novelty and newness of the technology. However, there’s a growing amount of evidence suggesting that VR can increase empathy.

Jeremy Bailenson, a communication professor at Stanford University says that there is research on “perspective taking”. Bailenson’s research focuses on comparing immersive virtual reality to other perspective-taking techniques. For instance, his lab processes watching a video or imaging a role play. With over a dozen experiments conducted since 2003, their findings have found that VR generally tends to create more empathy than controlled conditions.

A natural response would be for someone who feels a lot of emotion to donate.
Bailenson says that research has been conducted on the difference between attitudes and behaviors. He says, “VR tends to produce more behavior change than other types of perspective taking, while the differences in self-reported attitude changes are often similar across techniques.” 

So, people may not think they’ve been affected by VR compared to a normal video,but their behavior to the experienced increases readiness to act charitably toward the subject in the VR experience.

In the future, of course, charities will have to learn how to create content that draws in donors. VR may not be accessible or strategic for all types of charity or NGOs to use, but early performance indicators show that it can definitely boost donations for some charities when used sensitively. In the future, the reality for using VR to boost charitable donations is a gateway to a new reality.