“Rather than take the donors to the field – [VR] has the potential to bring the field to the donors.”

When people in the events business talk about “events,” we usually mean enjoyable, curated experiences that people look forward to attending.

But the definition of an “event” is much broader than that — it can also refer to natural disasters, war, and crisis.

For David Cravinho, the Global Fundraising Specialist at UNICEF, these two worlds meet every day. David organizes fundraisers that call attention to global communities in need.

Fundraisers like David face many challenges. When a problem is far from our day-to-day, how do we make them feel more real? How do we drum up support and turns statistics into an emotional reaction? How do we motivate people to go from bystanders to fundraisers — and supporters of a cause?

As we learned in past interviews with experiential marketing experts at Airbnb, Lyft, and Paypal, in-person experiences can be incredibly powerful motivators. They create a bond between a person and a brand or cause through memorable, real-life interactions.

In this fascinating Q&A, we asked David to explore the possibilities of virtual reality (VR) to transport people to humanitarian crises thousands of miles away — and how the technology could revolutionize fundraising.

What motivated UNICEF to experiment with VR technology?

One of the things that we do with our major donors, and makes a huge difference, is take them into the field so they can see what they’re supporting.

That works if you’re looking at a small target audience that gives a high value, but not where you have a mass approach, such as face-to-face fundraising. Last year, UNICEF brought on over 400,000 regular supporters through face-to-face, so it’s hugely important.

Obviously, you can’t take all prospective donors to visit a project, but what I realized a couple of years ago when I was reading about some of the early VR technology was that — rather than take the donors to the field — it had the potential to bring the field to the donors.

How did you make the business case for it?

Two things happened last year that made a massive difference. The UN Millennium Commission produced a piece — while not exactly what I was looking for — it fit our purpose well enough to take out and test, without having to invest in the creation of new content.

That was an eight-minute piece called “Clouds Over Sidra,” which follows the story of a 12-year-old Syrian girl who lives in the Jordanian refugee camp of Za’atari, just on the border. It shows a normal daily experience of the refugee camp through her eyes.

It was filmed with the cooperation of UNICEF staff, so it’s a reflection of our work. But more importantly, it’s a reflection of one of the people UNICEF is trying to help. It’s a representation of one of the millions of people across the world in similar situations.

It was launched last year at the World Economic Forum to show world leaders a different perspective of the refugee crisis. I got in touch with the directors of the film and they were happy for us to use it for fundraising.

Where are you showing the film?

We’re using it in lots of different contexts: in some places on the streets, in others in shopping centers, and with our major donors. We’re using it with our fundraising teams as well because we have lots of fundraisers who care deeply about the organization’s work, but have never had the opportunity to see it in action.

VR brings the work to life and has a hugely emotional impact. People give from a very emotional place; often people will rationalize it afterwards, but the decision to give tends to be more emotive.

What VR does, in its immersive nature, is enable people to make that emotional connection with the impact of their work — so it’s been really successful.

For us, it’s breathed new life into a fundraising channel that’s become a little bit tired and banal in some ways. People see fundraisers in the street and often avoid them because they have negative perceptions, but this is something different — and it’s very, very engaging.

Do charities have a responsibility to the viewers of VR content?

Yes. It’s an intense emotional experience so we’ve got to be cautious about what we expose people to.

“Clouds Over Sidra” doesn’t show despair or misery as they are sometimes portrayed in print or TV ads by some charities. If it did, I think it would be too much.

If we’re going to be using VR, we have to be very aware not to dial it up to “10.” People who are walking down the street just going about their business are not expecting to be thrust into a situation and see a woman dying in front of them. It’s important to bear in mind how much more immersive VR content is.

Virtual reality just might be a milestone in fundraising history. For the first time, thousands of donors can visit war zones, disaster sites, and poverty-stricken destinations to see first hand why their money is desperately needed. But it also presents other exciting opportunities to the wider industry. VR could open events like festivals, concerts, and conferences up to global audiences — and present a significant new revenue stream.

Want to learn more about how organizers can use immersive experiences to leave lasting impressions on attendees? Check out our interviews with experiential marketing experts at Airbnb, Lyft, Blurb, and Paypal.