Parks and Recreation actress Rashida Jones wanted to learn about the lives of Syrian refugees, so she took a trip to Lebanon last summer with an organization called the International Rescue Committee, looking to see their lives firsthand.
“I simply couldn’t understand the entirety of the situation unless I saw for myself,” she said. “And I couldn’t stand my ground against all this fear and misinformation without personal experience.”
But Jones was not only interested in gaining this firsthand encounter for herself, nor was the IRC merely interested in helping Jones witness the life of Syrian refugees. The actress accompanied the charity to Lebanon in order to star in and narrate a series of virtual reality videos filmed over the course of the trip, and released in early 2017. The videos were filmed as a part of a charity campaign called Four Walls, dedicated to providing homes for stranded Syrian refugees.
The Four Walls videos were released on the organization’s website and comprise a highly-stylized virtual world, providing 360 degree views of scenes of refugees in overcrowded schools, rudimentary shelters, and similar circumstances.
When the site is opened, pensive music backs an intro video voiced by Jones.
“You’ve probably seen the videos, the photos, read the news stories about displaced people. But have you ever stood face to face with a refugee?... I wanted you to have the opportunity to look into their eyes,” she says as her own picture becomes visible on the black screen, surrounded by the faces of refugee children, “Select me or any one of these photos to begin your journey.”
As the viewer clicks around the site, Jones’ voice provides a narrative of the daily life and needs of the refugees, while the viewer scrolls at will in all directions and sees the action for himself.
While this particular video series made headlines due to its star factor, virtual reality technology has been a growing fad in philanthropic promotion over the last two years or so. Virtual reality technology ranges from simple 360 degree scrolling videos to the more elaborate helmet-style videos which put the viewer directly “inside” the scene. Large philanthropic institutions with significant amounts of expendable money have been able to invest in VR videos, which cost somewhere around $100,000 each to produce. While this technology is expensive, the organizations argue that the investment is worthwhile because of a significant net gain. Humans are more likely to help others when they are able to “stand in their shoes,” and, as an essayist at The Economist wrote, VR technology has a significant power to “tap into this empathy.”
These kinds of initiatives seek deliberately to change the nature of philanthropic advertisement, and alter the motivations for involvement in order to cater to young and modern sensibilities and interests.
As actor Edward Norton, the founder of CrowdRise and designer of a VR crowdfunding app which was released on “Giving Tuesday” this year, spoke of virtual reality technology’s relationship to philanthropy:
“I think young people today have a different expectation about how they’re going to engage with substantive issues and causes. If you want people to be enthused about something and you want them to give their time and their resources to it, you need to make it vital, and exciting, and use techniques and technologies that are the same things we’re using in our entertainment, you know?”
By one way of measuring, it appears that Norton is right. These campaigns have been extremely effective. Another noteworthy VR campaign was premiered at an evening gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in December 2015. At the event, prominent men and women were treated to a lavish dinner and then headsets were brought out. The party of 400, each in their own VR headset, watched a video produced by the NY-based Charity: Water, which builds water projects for remote villages around the world.
The video followed Selam, a 13-year old girl who, before the charity’s work, had to spend much of her days walking to a remote pond, dirty and full of leeches, to gather jugs or water for her family. The viewers followed Selam as she walked long distances to get the water, heard the unsettling sounds of flies buzzing as she dipped her jug into the dirty pool, and finally stood in the middle of the gratitude and celebrations as the aid workers arrived in their truck, sent pipes deep into the ground, and as water rushed through the pipes into the air.
In that night alone, donors at the event committed $2.4 million, much more than the planners had anticipated. The charity also reported that, shortly after the video’s premiere, a donor came to the office planning to give $60,000, watched the video and was so moved by it that he upped his donation to $400,000 on the spot.
Organizations like Charity: Water and the International Rescue Committee are doing good work, and these virtual reality campaigns are bringing their causes to a remote public, crafting an experience that makes them feel for far-away people in need in a way they could not otherwise. And they’re bringing in money. It’s all good news, right?
Perhaps not all good.
As these campaigns begin to draw so many philanthropic dollars, more and more charities will have to compete with similar advertising innovations of their own. If these highly-curated, highly-crafted, and extremely expensive videos are made to build interest and empathy in their viewers through the same mechanisms which they receive their entertainment, then it is worthwhile to consider how, as this becomes the standard, it may affect the way in which donors become accustomed to choosing the causes they ought to support.
If donors become used to having needs demonstrated to them in highly stylized and cinematic forms, this may be to the detriment of the less-glamorous and less-presented needs that may be right in front of them.
As Norton said, explaining the use of virtual reality in philanthropy campaigns, “Philanthropy shouldn’t be out of a sense of obligation, it should be fun.”
But if charitable giving becomes something that must be advertised and sold to donors, rather than an obligation each person has to his or her own community, then those who receive aid as well as the way in which aid is administered will be determined by these large organizations (that have the kind of expendable funding to make such advertising campaigns), and many overlooked causes will suffer. As people come to expect to be entertained and wowed by causes in order to support them; that is, if philanthropy becomes an attention economy like Hollywood, then they will become desensitized to the needs that are around them and not on a high-resolution high-color screen inches from their eyes and backed by a narrator.
People learn to be caring and generous – they learn to be truly charitable – by becoming perceptive to the needs around them and finding specific, personalized ways to meet those needs with understanding and care. The rise of these virtual reality campaigns suggests a trend that arguably cultivates the opposite in people, an attitude of sitting-back, expecting to be entertained, and responding to these sensations with giving.
This form of giving, while it clearly does good in the world, may change donors’ expectations and fail to cultivate in people the human capacity to see for themselves the reality around them and to act to that reality in a fittingly charitable way.