Non-profits are increasingly using virtual worlds to create deeper connections and more immersive experiences for the people they serve, while also forging more meaningful relationships with donors. Nick Fouriezos speaks to charity leaders and the experts they rely on to understand what engagement looks like in the digital age.
The Roblox creation looks like it came straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, with playground slides jutting out of five rainbow-coloured houses stacked on top of each other. The greatest wonder of it all? This virtual Ronald McDonald House was designed with the input of the seriously ill children who will use it to stay connected to their friends while receiving medical treatment far away from home.
“We are happy to be able to contribute with something we know that the children will appreciate — a house of their own for them and their friends,” said McDonald’s Sweden marketing director, Staffan Ekstam, at the time of the launch.
Ronald McDonald Houses in Sweden recently teamed up with metaverse marketing studio Karta to create its digital space on Roblox, the gaming platform with 60 million daily users. The house isn’t just a gathering space for children battling homesickness — it also presents a great opportunity for the non-profit to raise attention and funding for their cause, in perpetuity.
“This is permanent. That’s the big difference from other traditional marketing initiatives, such as events, social media, or adverts,” says Karta founder and CEO Erik Londré, noting that the digital house has multiple fundraising opportunities, such as holding metaverse galas or auctioning naming rights to various rooms within it. “You can continue using these metaverse worlds, and updating them, and can turn them into a new marketing channel.”
Virtual experiences like these offer a number of benefits to charities. For one, it gives them access to demographics that are typically difficult to reach, whether it’s to better help those in need or to build deeper relationships with donors. Plus, charities can use digital experiences to bring their message to their audience at scale.
“This is permanent.”
— Erik Londré, Karta Founder and CEO
Erik has a unique insight, borne from a past career as Head of Events at the eSports brand Fnatic. Since honing his craft at the intersection of digital events and gaming, his team at Karta has worked with brands from Unilever to Manchester City Football Club — helping them reach millions of people who can play virtual games and win prizes, while immersing themselves in brand experiences on Roblox, or a range of other similar ‘virtual universes’ that let others build experiences on their platforms.
“The great aspect of working in Roblox or Fortnite is the huge player bases: you can reach millions of young people,” Londré says, noting that more “metaverse-oriented” platforms like Decentraland and The Sandbox are home to a far smaller, albeit wealthier and older, player base. Rather than relying on large mega-donors, charities can harness the scale of digital experiences to enable small, two-digit donations that make an enormous impact when compounded by thousands or millions of virtual users — similarly to how political campaigns have moved towards targeting smaller donations whilst reaching record fundraising totals.
A number of brands are already launching major initiatives in various virtual worlds, and non-profits are increasingly joining them in seeking the vast opportunities that they offer, which the consultancy firm, McKinsey, has predicted could be a $5 trillion market by 2030.
“Kids are spending huge amounts of time in Roblox, and parents are getting involved too,” says Linda McBain, Chief Digital Officer at Save the Children UK. She explains that the global charity has “a huge interest” in the virtual experiences, buoyed particularly by the younger demographics (aged 14-24) that populate it, and she notes that Save the Children has held corporate events on the platform in the past.
In December, Save the Children Italy held a Roblox event with the nation’s largest clothing retailer, OVS, for Christmas Jumper Day 2022. Adults and children could purchase a Christmas jumper from €25 and had the chance to virtually meet Italian singer Francesca Michielin on the platform.
“Where the metaverse can really naturally fit is bringing experiences closer to home and engaging people in education, training, and immersive experiences,” Linda says.
Visitors to the Christmas Land Roblox experience could also play games, win prizes, and buy other gadgets to support Save the Children’s initiatives, creating an experience that Francesca Michielin described at the time as “like bringing the magic of Christmas into people’s homes.”
“You can welcome people wherever they are in the world, and there are no physical limits to what you can do.”
— Jane Curtis, Fundraising and Leadership Consultant
Digital experiences will have a major impact on how charities interact with donors, says Jane Curtis, a fundraising and leadership consultant with two decades of experience in the charity sector. “We have to think bigger and think differently,” she explains. “You can welcome people wherever they are in the world, and there are no physical limits to what you can do.”
For example, Alzheimer’s Research UK recently worked with Google to produce a series of VR stories that immerse participants in the everyday experiences of people with dementia. Charities have long tried to help donors walk in the shoes of the individuals they are trying to help, understanding that people are more likely to give if they feel connected to those in need. Fundamentally, digital experiences let charities produce this experiential marketing in a far better way, one that is more immersive, engaging, and scalable.
“You can reach millions of young people.”
— Erik Londré, Karta Founder and CEO
Still, obstacles remain for charities trying to engage in the metaverse. In particular, it can be difficult to build up the technical know-how needed to succeed in digital spaces, especially given that the landscape is evolving quickly. In addition, nonprofits might also be concerned about reputation: will donors view their participation in the metaverse as a positive way to reach new audiences, or as a drain on funds that could go towards other activities tied to their cause? To date, virtual experiences have yet to be placed front and centre of a major fundraising campaign, though they have their place as one approach within a broader strategy.
Ultimately, virtual experiences expose nonprofits to new audiences and new opportunities, such as using immersive, 3D spaces to host digital fundraising galas, or create unique experiences — to show what it’s like to be in a refugee camp, or what a charity like Save the Children really does on the ground, for example — that can communicate a charity’s narrative to a donor in a more personal way. And while the technology might have changed, the end goal has not: to do more good in real life, no matter which reality we use as tools.
To learn more about how we think charities can prepare for the future of the internet, read our Culture3 report, Unlocking Opportunity for Charities in Web3.
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