Non-Profit organization Hope for Haiti uses virtual reality to build empathy and touch potential donors and international travelers.
Virtual Reality (VR) gained popularity since its introduction to the market in the mid-1980s. The technology works by creating realistic environments that manipulate the human brain into perceiving it as reality.
During the pandemic, virtual reality usage increased by 71%, spurring a technology boom. That momentum is projected to increase over the next few years and grow to $4.26 billion. VR is being used for everything from enhancing work meetings to bettering recruitment techniques. And now, it's entering the non-profit space as a way to connect developing countries to donors and travelers.
Hope for Haiti uses this innovative technology in the socially distant post-COVID world to do philanthropic work. It started when Sarah Porter, Director of Business Development and Strategic Partnerships at Hope for Haiti, received a VR headset for Christmas in 2020. She started to think of ways to incorporate it into her philanthropic work and create a significant social impact. This sparked an idea.
Both Porter and the CEO of Hope for Haiti, Skyler Badenoch, agree that showing and not just telling makes a more tangible impact. Badenoch explained that visitor trips to Haiti help people see the Haiti that Haitians know. With the combination of limited travel and available technology, Hope for Haiti pivoted. "When COVID happened, we had to come up with an alternative. It's using new technology. We're big believers that experience breeds passion."
Having impacted over 300,000 individuals in Haiti in 2020 alone, Hope for Haiti's motivation is clear: raise the resources needed to bridge the opportunity gap and foster community-driven development.
With a global audience aimed at "doing good," virtual reality is a big part of Hope for Haiti's plans. They look at what people are doing in the gaming space and engage with the VR community and the philanthropic space. Porter and Badenoch hope to work with gamers and live streamers who are already raising funds by gaming for social impact. As galas and in-person experiences adapt to our new reality, the evolving niche is one to be explored. What will replace or even enhance these monetarily beneficial experiences?
Porter began by asking the 'what ifs.' What if she had 25 people in a room who could all experience what she was talking about in real-time? This question persists: What if?
In 2015, the "for purpose" organization, Pencils of Promise, raised $1.9 million through the use of virtual reality at their Wall Street gala. This achievement highlighted the importance of human connection through the use of virtual reality. Despite this fact, the use of VR in philanthropy is slim. Hope for Haiti is adding to this innovation by being one of the first non-profits to design an event using VR. Users can attend Hope for Haiti's school, which is currently under construction. Virtual visitors can engage with each other and do things like pump water from a nearby well and write on the chalkboard.
Virtual reality is a powerful fundraising tool, but the goal isn't just to raise money. VR is also used to create empathy and connect with the people on the ground in underdeveloped countries. Badenoch wants to expand awareness and interest in Haiti and connect with the tech-savvy Gen-Z. "We can bring Haiti to you." Porter elaborates, "We are changing the narrative about what [people] think Haiti is and how they can experience it."
These experiences hold possibility.
Virtual reality doesn't only create an experience, it serves to undermine one-sided media. VR is used as an alternative form of news and media by addressing the stereotypes and the unfounded stories about underdeveloped nations and the people who live there. Badenoch shared, "I think there's a space for that counter narrative to help us balance out what's really going on in this country. 50 teachers are doing training in Haiti. We can't forget that these day to day activities occur. Our organization can be that counterbalance." He continues, "There's nothing better than going and really being embedded as much as you possibly can. This is a step in the right direction."
"We have a policy to never show people in a compromising situation. What we are showing is the opportunity gap. There are specific challenges that are unique to Haitians and where they are in the world."
When dealing with vulnerable populations, the question of exploitation inevitably comes up. Porter states, "We never subscribed to the poverty tours," and Badenoch continues, "We have a policy to never show people in a compromising situation. What we are showing is the opportunity gap. There are specific challenges that are unique to Haitians and where they are in the world." With the subject of empathy, this makes sense. Hope for Haiti hopes to show the daily lives of Haitians at work and school. They hope to bring you along to the construction site of a developing school or learn about Haitian cuisine. The role of virtual reality is shifting the perception of underdeveloped countries, increasing empathy and thereby impacting development work. Badenoch says of the multidimensional challenges of poverty, "We're visual. We experience through our eyes."
While technology continues to innovate our everyday lives, one would not think of empathy as a field it can positively impact. But somehow, it does. Technology can eradicate the stigma that many countries face and improve development work that many countries require.
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