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As charity events go virtual, what’s next for the sector?


Victoria Usher

Published On:

July 10, 2020

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As charity events go virtual, what’s next for the sector?

The recent upsurge in digital transformation has made an impact to businesses across the board, and the third sector is no exception. As COVID-19 has upturned normal life, non-profit leaders have quickly harnessed digital capabilities: from mobile tracker apps for young adults self-isolating with arthritis to hackathons aimed at fighting the virus by sharing insight, including sessions involving NHS Digital and the British Red Cross.

But rising use of technology isn’t a new trend for charities. Long before the current crisis, major forces were leveraging smart tools to drive more innovative fundraising ideas and hold various virtual charity events. Now, the pandemic is powering an even greater shift towards digitalised services and connection that’s set to escalate sector-wide evolution.

So, what does this mean for the future of non-profit organisations?

The best answer to that question lies with a closer look at the tech trends already changing the way charities raise money, drive awareness, and ensure ongoing support.

1. Virtual fundraisers open new possibilities

Physical events have always played a vital role in drawing greater attention and resources to social, environmental, and humanitarian causes. Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life, for example, has raised over £500 million for life-saving work over the last two decades. Yet as coronavirus has put a pause on such real-world-fundraisers, more charities are discovering the opportunities provided by virtual events.

See, for instance, the recent MCH.London virtual boat race. A long-held dream for the founder of sports charity Power2Inspire, John Willis, the race was not only the first of its kind, but also an effective showcase of how sports can be more inclusive. Thanks to connected tech, diverse global teams — including Olympic, Paralympic, World Championship and club rowers — were able to take part from their homes via video recordings. Hosting the combined final footage on fundraising site Give as you Live also meant fans had the chance to join in with the shared racing experience and donate online; contributing over £15,000 and counting.

And it seems appreciation of the enhanced scale and accessibility that open digital events offer for charities is spreading fast. In the last few months alone, music-focused charity Soundabout have increased their reach to 12,0000 people using social media, and a virtual comedy gig held by The Covid Arms has driven funds of £100, 000 for The Trussell Trust. It’s therefore likely that from here on, the outlook for non-profits events will be a hybrid one; blending online and physical events to achieve maximum multi-channel inclusivity.

2. VR helps to strike an empathetic chord

Looking back to the pre-pandemic era, there are plenty of examples to show charities were already moving in line with the digital curve years ago, particularly when it comes to virtual reality (VR). As the availability and affordability of hardware has improved, institutions across the third sector have started to adopt VR as a means of fuelling deeper empathy.

In 2016, Charity:Water created ‘The Source’ — a VR film taking viewers to Ethiopia and through six days in the life of 13-year-old girl, Selam, including walking long distances to collect and drink unsafe water. Shown to 400 guests as part of a fundraising banquet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the film gave a moving first-person demonstration of the difference Charity:Water makes by installing clean-water wells for communities around the globe. By the end of the evening, donations totalled $2.4 million.

Around the same time, Alzheimer’s Research UK also unveiled an app that puts users in the shoes of someone living with dementia. Built with Google Cardboard, ‘A Walk Through Dementia’ shows the varied and complex symptoms that can affect individuals of varying ages beyond memory loss using three situations: a trip to the supermarket, navigating busy streets and managing everyday tasks at home. The latest data indicates monthly download figures are currently running at over 600.

As illustrated by the significant impact of these initiatives, VR presents a promising new frontier for charities striving to increase engagement with their causes and work. In the years to come, we can expect to see meaningful VR storytelling become a more common feature of charity activities, alongside another key tech for driving connection: augmented reality (AR).

3. AR brings positive outcomes to real-time life

Much like VR, AR has proved a potent tool for non-profit organisations keen to make often distant situations, programmes, and events tangible for potential supporters.

Just over four years ago, the NHS launched a bold multi-media campaign intended to take the fear out of blood-giving. Using a mobile app and digital-out-home (DOOH) screen, the effort simulated donation and its effects: as members of the public held an iPhone over a sticker where the injection would occur, the DOOH screen displayed a blood bag filling up — and most importantly — a patient transforming from unhealthy to healthy. After 20 seconds, personalised messages appeared to thank virtual donors; highlighting the speed, power and simplicity of donations.

More recently, a similar AR installation was created at Wimbledon to build awareness about sustainable fashion in 2019. The joint project from HSBC, WWF and WaterAid highlighted the positive outcomes of cleaner clothing supply chains via a mock Wimbledon changing room: allowing visitors to try on the sustainable outfits tennis champions could be wearing by 2030 using AR overlays in smart mirrors.

While direct, offline interaction has been off-limits for most of 2020, AR is set to be high on the agenda for charities keen to bolster exposure and donations as lockdown eases.

The growing tech savvy of the charity sector has so far remained largely under-recognised, but that is finally beginning to change. As virtual charity events, creative cross-channel campaigns and agile services are accelerated by coronavirus, non-profit organisations are making their mark as digital innovators and carving a new high-tech path for the industry.

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