Using VR for social change: an interview with Amy Pearson of Plan International UK

Much of the discourse surrounding the growth of the VR market is concerned with entertainment and enterprise applications.

But what about the technology’s ability to promote social change?

VR World Congress 2017 recently hosted a panel discussing how charities are using VR to drive engagement with positive causes.

Amy Pearson, Plan International UK’s brand and marketing officer was part of the panel. She was promoting the charity’s new film ‘Mamie’s Dream’ which tells the story of a 22-year old Sierra Leonean woman as she tries to educate her community about the effects of child marriage on women’s access to education.  

After the panel, we caught up with Amy to talk about the topic in more detail.

                                            Amy Pearson of Plan International UK

Do you think that creating experiences is going to be an important part of charity fundraising in the near future? Will it rival more traditional forms of fundraising?  

The charity sector is a competitive market and so it’s important to always create an experience when trying to communicate our work to people.

VR, by its nature, is more immersive and engaging than anything else Plan International has produced. Creating a VR experience is the only way we can transport supporters and potential donors to another country and immerse them into one of our projects. By doing this they are experiencing first-hand the impact their work has on other people’s lives.

VR, by its nature, is more immersive and engaging than anything else Plan International has produced

Once the virtual reality equipment is used more widely amongst the public then I think it could rival more traditional forms of fundraising. Where we saw success was in the recruitment of campaigners to our Because I am a Girl campaign – helping end the prejudices that threaten girls safety – and I think this was because people saw the film and felt motivated to act.

Does the value for the charity come from creating a memorable experience that sticks in people’s minds, or is it a way of allowing people to better empathise with people in need?    

I think it’s both. The majority of people who have watched the film have never seen virtual reality before, so immediately it’s an exciting and memorable experience. 

Our film, ‘Mamie’s Dream’ transports viewers to rural Sierra Leone to walk alongside 22-year-old Mamie, who is part of a local teacher training project supported by the charity.

The film transports the viewer into her world and lets them walk in her shoes

The film transports the viewer into her world and lets them walk in her shoes by seeing her home, community and classroom.  It is an incredibly emotive and compelling story and at the end of watching it people often ask, “How can I help?”  

I’ll always remember when 200 people watched the video at one of our events. That was definitely an experience – if not a logistical nightmare!

The cost of owning VR hardware is currently a barrier stopping more widespread consumer adoption of the technology. Does this work to a charity’s advantage by allowing them to seem cutting-edge, or would VRs effectiveness be increased if the technology was more widespread? 

Using a virtual reality headset to watch the film definitely seems more cutting edge to the public, mainly because many don’t own the equipment and are trying the technology for the first time. We recently showed the film at the Women of the World festival which meant we stood out from the crowd. It was a great way of engaging with people and showing them our work in an innovative way.  

It was a great way of engaging with people and showing them our work in an innovative way

The lack of access to VR hardware makes it more challenging to watch online. Without the equipment, VR becomes less immersive and less engaging. The alternative is using a mouse to navigate through the video which can take longer and is often not very smooth. Having said that, we have still had some amazing reactions to people watching our content online and YouTube added it to their VR playlist!

                                             Mamie teaching in a school

Does VR have any other applications to charities other than fundraising, such as training?

We campaign for girls’ rights across the world and one of our main aims is to recruit as many campaigners as we can to stand in solidarity with the girls we work with and take action to improve their rights.

VR creates a powerful response that often encourages people to act

Using a tool like VR, to allow the viewer to experience what it is like to be a girl growing up in Sierra Leone, creates a powerful response that often encourages people to act.

It’s also a great engagement tool at meetings with corporate partners and major donors. 

How did Plan International come to decide to look at VR as an option? Was it driven by a particular campaign or a more general desire to explore new technologies?

We wanted a marketing tool which would give the viewer an experience that was as close to reality as possible. It’s also important for Plan International UK to embrace new digital communications and offer something unique to potential supporters.

The idea for the VR film tied in nicely with our Because I am a Girl campaign, something which has already helped 58 million girls across the world, and we saw it as the perfect opportunity to promote our campaign using this relatively new and exciting platform.

You can watch ‘Mamie’s Dream’ here (long version) and here (short version) .

To find out more about the Because I am a Girl campaign, you can visit Plan International UK’s website.

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