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Nonprofits exploring virtual reality as a way to attract donors

Nonprofits know that in order to attract people to their causes, they need to tell emotional stories. That’s why some Austin nonprofits are exploring virtual reality as a means to make their stories even more compelling, even though the technology is still in its early stages.

Virtual reality is a form of filmmaking that puts the viewer in the scene by creating a 360-degree visual and audio experience. Most commonly, viewers wear a set of goggles and headphones that block their vision and hearing to the outside world and replace it with the film.

“When I experienced VR, it put me in the shoes of folks around the world and gave me a sense of their lives,” said Llyas Salahud-din, a fundraising professional at LifeWorks, an Austin nonprofit that supports young people who are coming out of foster care or homelessness. “Creating that sense of empathy can help volunteers, donors and other stakeholders feel that emotion and get a better understanding about the services nonprofits like LifeWorks provide.”

At the 2017 SXSW Conference, the VR company, Oculus, showcased eight films created for nonprofits from across the world including The Harmony Project in Los Angeles, CARE in Niger and Pelagic Life in Mexico.

French filmmaker Sophie Ansel, director of “Out of the Blue” for Palegic Life, said, “I think the interesting thing about VR is that it creates that sense that you are not just viewing something, you are experiencing something. That experience will be part of your memory because you will have been on a journey with the character in the film. And that creates empathy, much more than if you just watch a film on a square screen.”

Nonprofits hope that a person’s curiosity about VR in general will lead them to watch the films. But could VR films be a boon for nonprofits? Not necessarily.

First, there’s the cost. While nonprofits can pay anywhere from $1,500 to $15,000 for a video to be shown at a fundraising event or online, a VR film can cost much more in post-production. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that a film shown at a Charity:Water gala cost $100,000 to produce in 2016. But as the equipment evolves and more of the software to produce the films becomes cheaper or free, that cost may not be a barrier much longer.

Second, filmmakers warn that there are right ways and wrong ways to make these films. Going in with a goal in mind and a strategy are important first steps before bringing in a filmmaker, said Ansel. “The filmmaker has to lead the viewer through the story we want to tell,” she said.

Salahud-din said he thinks it can also speed up the donor-cultivation process. “We won’t have to take someone on a tour four or five times. VR can help them picture our work faster.” He also said he can see VR working beyond fundraising. “I think it’s going to affect policies. If we can get these stories in front of policymakers, that could change everything.”

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