Oct 2023
by Andreas Will

XR in non-profit communications – “building the empathy-bridge”

Virtual reality experience room for up to 12 people at the BMZ booth.

This is a guest post by Hanna Ahrenberg. In her master thesis, Hanna investigated how non-profit organisations (NPOs) can successfully use VR & AR technologies in their storytelling. In addition to a literature review, she conducted qualitative interviews with experts, including Andreas Will from Garamantis.

With the onset of the hype around VR & AR, many NPOs have recognised the potential for its use in storytelling: Experiences that either extend the given reality with virtual elements or even take place entirely in technically simulated worlds are collectively referred to as Extended Reality (XR) experiences. These can bridge the spatial and emotional distance between two of an NPO’s most important stakeholders, its donors and clients, and lead to more support. However, the small budgets and high ethical and moral standards placed on NPOs mean that they need to be particularly careful.

The use of XR – opportunities and risks in the non-profit sector

When virtual reality became a buzzword around 2015, it wasn’t just commercial organisations that took notice. Non-profit organisations quickly realised that immersive storytelling could be a great way to virtually transport their target audiences to areas of humanitarian aid or environmental protection, and convince them of the relevance of their work and the urgency of the problems they are addressing. It was also hoped that this format would attract younger audiences. The new medium was seen as having great impact. Chris Milk, whose famous VR film “Clouds over Sidra” was one of the first high-profile productions in the charity sector, even spoke of VR as an “empathy machine” that could be used to change minds. After a few pilot projects, however, the euphoria died down and the first organisations began to have doubts: is the high financial outlay worth it in terms of direct return on investment? Could being associated with Meta, Google & Co. have a negative impact on my image? And what will happen to people as they immerse themselves more and more in virtual realities? These are just some of the concerns that have led to a slow uptake of XR, especially in the non-profit sector, which is lagging behind the rapid developments in the commercial sector. Through a literature review and interviews, we identified a number of best practices for the successful use of XR in NPO storytelling.

Immersion is always a choice

Reception research has long emphasised that media effects are multi-stage processes that can be actively shaped by the recipient. In the same way, an organisation can only influence the degree to which participants are immersed in an XR experience to a certain extent. Communicators do not really need to be told that a detailed target group analysis is essential for the successful communication of a message. However, it is a fact that needs to be reiterated because of the powerful impact often attributed to immersive media. Tailoring the content to the audience increases the likelihood that they will recognise the added value of the experience and fully engage with it. In practice, pre-selection is mainly done by presenting VR films at trade fairs or events where certain stakeholders, such as politicians or experts, are expected. The advantage here is that the experience can be used as a conversation starter and viewers can be engaged individually from their own perspective.

“The aim was not to achieve widespread awareness, as dissemination was so difficult. We were more interested in a limited audience segment that you could access, that you could really captivate for a moment and take on a journey” – expert from an XR agency

Decentralised implementation in the form of videos that can be accessed at any time, on the other hand, is often aimed at a broad audience. However, the problem has been that the low penetration of VR headsets has meant that the desired reach has not always been achieved – a factor that may disappear in the foreseeable future as cheaper models, such as Apple’s, come to market. While VR requires a greater willingness to pause and immerse oneself in the experience, the use of AR tends to be much more low-threshold, for example when apps on a mobile phone or tablet make virtual rooms accessible through the ‘magic window’, as demonstrated in the production ‘Enter the Room’. However, this is a trade-off, as the intensity of immersion is comparatively low due to the one-dimensionality of screens.

Heart beats mind – media effects of XR

Immersive experiences seem to have a particularly strong impact on the emotions of recipients: many studies have found that the moderating effects triggered by VR, the perceived presence in the digital world and the narrative transport into the story have a strong impact on empathy and willingness to help. XR has also been shown to enable identification with protagonists by providing a different perspective and can strengthen the sense of community. According to some studies, it even makes no difference whether the characters are real or animated. But to what extent can XR be used to convey knowledge and explain issues? Experiments show that the intensity of a VR experience can overwhelm human processing capacity and thus weaken memory performance. Information is less memorable than the emotional aspects of a story, which provide crucial information for story design. In general, stories have the ability to strengthen long-term memory and understanding of complex relationships. This is one of the reasons why XR storytelling and gamification are increasingly being used in educational contexts. In addition, other immersive features can lead to motivation and engagement, resulting in higher participation and lower dropout rates.

VR is all the more suited to influencing affective attitudes: studies suggest that an immersive VR experience can both increase interest and reduce critical opinions. This is also reflected in the objectives of the projects analysed: NPOs, which often deal with emotionally intense issues, can use the immersive properties to raise awareness of their goals. For good reason, however, the immersive story itself is not used purely to convey knowledge, but at most as an experience that encourages people to delve deeper into a topic, e.g. as a hook for journalists.

“It’s actually about what you don’t say in virtual reality. It’s about being present and trying not to take the viewer out of that presence. So, trying to allow them to be a part of an experience versus explaining or feeding them too much information, which you can do in other mediums” – communications manager from an NPO

Whether these effects translate into action has not yet been adequately researched. However, a link has been suggested between VR experiences and an individual’s perceived self-efficacy, meaning that the medium could also be used to encourage environmentally friendly behaviour, for example.

Responsible storytelling

The protagonists of NPO stories are often the beneficiaries of campaigns, i.e. one of the core target groups of the organisation. Stories are often drawn from real life and reflect the reality of the field. Great importance should therefore be attached to an authentic and differentiated portrayal of the respective personalities and their culture. This means that producers should engage intensively with the people portrayed and their environment, or give them the opportunity to contribute their point of view in a participatory process, rather than telling the story from their own, often westernised, perspective. This is not only a matter of respect for the client’s reality, but also important for the credibility of the story. In general, content creators should consider whether their content adequately represents people and reflects the diversity of society, and who might benefit or be harmed by such representation. The REACH Equity Framework (Representation, Experience, Accessibility, Compensation, Harm Reduction) provides guidance on this.

“Why do you think you’re the best to tell the story? Are you going to give the story justice? Why are these the best people to share their stories? Are you going to be fair to them and collaborate with them, or is it going to be an exploitative one-way kind of work?” – Mariam Al-Dhubani, VR filmmaker and consultant

© Mariam Al Dhubani, 2020

© Mariam Al Dhubani, 2020

With her 360° experience ‘Old Sana’a City: Samsarat Al-Nuhas’, film producer Mariam Al-Dhubani draws attention to traditional Yemeni culture and the threat of war.

In addition to this guideline, which should apply equally to all communicators as a benchmark for contemporary content production, content and messages must be carefully aligned with the NPO’s mission. Only when the story and the brand are successfully integrated can a consistent external image be created. This factor is particularly important for NPOs, for whom securing public trust is a top priority.

Tip: Bundle costs for XR projects

One of the most common reasons why many NPOs stick to a single XR project is easy to find: The equipment and production of the experience is expensive, the personnel costs for implementation and support are high, and the actual additional income in the form of direct donations is uncertain. It can be useful to work with agencies that are up to date with fast-moving developments and can sometimes offer more cost-effective options, for example through the use of open source software. It also increases the chances of getting funding from federal and state governments, not only in the charity sector, but also in the broader XR & gaming sector. In the case of an umbrella organisation, the costs of VR projects can be bundled centrally so that the content can be used in the various national branches. The example of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) shows that it can also be worthwhile to have an in-house VR department. They started with internal training and courses in multiplayer VR, creating a kind of XR library. The collected content is constantly being expanded and can also be used for external communication activities. Most recently, the NPO launched its “Mirror World”, a digital twin that mirrors the ICRC’s operational area and allows for a variety of scenario simulations.

“If we build a town for a specific project, we can recycle this town and modify it a little bit to create something really different. So that’s why, as we make projects, our library is just growing” – Christian Rouffaer, Head of Virtual Reality Unit at ICRC


© ICRC. Among many other XR productions, the ICRC is raising awareness of the threat to civilians in Vietnam from remaining landmines.

In general, it is worth exploring new ways of working together: For example, the ICRC has worked with renowned video game maker Bohemia Interactive to simulate war scenarios in humanitarian aid.

The gaming sector and the ability to create interactive, multi-linear stories is a promising option: Studies show that gamification can increase engagement and motivation, and there are real-world examples of increased retention rates. However, you should be aware of an effect known in research as the “interactive paradox”. This refers to the problem that integrating interactive elements always means giving control to the recipients, which can sometimes be risky with sensitive NPO issues. An intermediate solution is often chosen, such as creating several fixed storylines that viewers can choose from.

Tip: Make intangible impacts tangible

In general, the communications discipline struggles to adequately present its often intangible and long-term impacts, which significantly hampers the legitimacy of spending.This is all the more true in the not-for-profit context, where donors expect funds to be invested directly in aid on the ground, rather than in marketing and communications.As a result, NPO communicators are faced with the challenge of competing for the attention of their target audiences with limited budgets.Costly VR campaigns are often expected to pay for themselves in the form of increased donations. Many NPOs find that VR projects do not necessarily provide a direct return on investment. But they do in the form of enthusiastic audiences, positive press coverage, and the development of new audiences and platforms for the dissemination of their issues, such as nominations for film awards or invitations to festivals. However, this added value is rarely captured in the form of a systematic evaluation of the campaign. This may be due to the fact that NPOs are generally critical of evaluation and controlling, as the emphasis on quantitative metrics is often perceived as contradicting the intangible dimension of goals. Herein lies the difficulty, but also the opportunity for NPOs: by evaluating VR projects in terms of aspects such as short- and long-term opinion-forming, but also member loyalty or building public trust, immersive storytelling can better demonstrate the intangible value creation.

“Many NPOs don’t simply want immediate membership or donation responses, but rather aim to be perceived as a trusted brand that people regularly engage with and support […] In light of these higher goals, return on investment is actually a relatively low-level objective.” – Expert from an XR agency

Measuring the success of Extended Reality

Measurement systems such as Kaplan’s Balanced Score Card or the DPRG/ICV reference framework are useful because they emphasise the link between monetary and non-monetary objectives. Many quantitative effects are relatively easy to measure by tracking dwell time, media reach, page impressions and visitor numbers. Surveying audiences before and after a VR experience is more complex, but can have important qualitative effects such as changing perceptions and attitudes. By focusing more consistently on impact, the allocation of resources can be better legitimised, both internally to management and externally to donors and institutions. It can also help to improve the position of communication and establish it as a management function of NPOs. A consistent focus on impact also prevents organisations from using VR as an end in itself, as many agencies observe with their clients. Instead, there needs to be a focus on the objectives of a communication activity and an awareness of the benefits of the technology and how best to use them. You can then decide whether this format really supports the content or whether another medium might be more appropriate.

Conclusion: from virtual to mixed reality

Just as XR should not be seen as a panacea for communication, neither should it be dismissed as an overpriced publicity stunt. With market trends predicting huge growth for the XR industry, it may not revolutionise communication as much as some VR enthusiasts have predicted – but it is definitely a medium that is here to stay.

“All you have to do is put on the new glasses with inside-out tracking and there are no cables to trip over. A lot has happened in terms of technology. If costs continue to fall, it will become even more widespread. – Andreas Köster, Head of Communications, Garamantis

Virtual Reality auf Messen - Vorteile und Nachteile

With the Climate Dome, Garamantis created a multi-sensory installation for the BMZ that shows visitors the consequences of climate change in 360° and with the help of smells, wind towers and temperature changes.

A look at the predictions shows that AR and MR will gain in importance, while 360° experiences will increasingly lose their sensational value. There are also other disruptive developments on the horizon that interact strongly with immersive technologies: For example, the opportunities for digital social interaction, content creation or consumption are expanding significantly in the wake of Metaverse and Web3.0, and the use of artificial intelligence could further drive the personalisation of content. Whether NPOs succeed in securing a long-term competitive advantage through strategic VR and AR storytelling and attracting young audiences, or whether they are left behind by the fast-moving developments in the XR sector, depends largely on their knowledge of the effective use of new technologies and the associated media effects, as well as the continuous improvement of the efficiency of these communication tools.

For a deeper insight into the underlying work and other best practices, please contact the author by e-mail (hanna.ahrenberg@outlook.com).

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