Rhodri Davies, Programme Leader, Giving Thought

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Charities Aid Foundation

The role of giving


15 December 2016

The idea of augmented or virtual reality has been around for a long time (we can think back to the visual information overlay in the Terminator movies, or the virtual reality online world Second Life), but it is only fairly recently that significant advances in technology, reductions in the cost of equipment, and the increased availability of data have made the technology far more widespread. One of the biggest drivers behind the increase in public awareness of AR/VR has been the huge success of the game Pokémon Go, which combines augmented reality with mobile computing technology to allow users to travel around real-world locations collecting new creatures, performing tasks to gain points and battling with other users.

I have to admit that I haven’t actually played Pokémon Go yet (I’ve got two children aged 3 and under, so I spend quite enough time chasing cute monsters around real-world locations without downloading an app to do it in my spare time as well…) However, I have been interested in the wider implications of augmented and virtual reality technology for charitable giving for a while now (I even managed to get myself quoted in The Times talking about the subject…(£)). I have touched on some of this before in a previous post suggesting that technology was making us care less about each other, but I wanted to expand on those ideas and throw in some new ones here.

I think, as with a number of other nascent technologies, that AR/VR could have profound implications for charitable giving. It is important to note that what I am talking about here (as I will elaborate on below) is not just people playing fairly basic AR games on their phones or buying an Oculus Rift headset to use at home, but rather the increasing integration of AR and VR into the interfaces that enable us to engage with a broad range of technology. To get a sense of how profound a transformation this development could spell, check out this recent article from Forbes (“The Fourth Transformation: Augmented Reality & Artificial Intelligence”)

So what are the implications for charities? Well, there are three main ones I want to consider (one positive and two more worrying).


Almost all of the attention that has so far been given to the question of AR/VR and charities has focused on the ways in which organizations are using the technology to engage with supporters and the public. (e.g. “How Virtual Reality Is Inspiring Donors to Dig Deep for Charitable Causes”, “Early days of virtual reality suggest it has a ‘pull factor’”, and the aforementioned Times article (£) in which I am quoted, “Charities use virtual reality to stir emotions”.)

All these efforts seem to have two overlapping purposes:

A) To raise awareness and understanding of the issues that the organization is trying to address. A good example of this is Alzheimer’s Research UK’s “A Walk through Dementia” mobile app, which uses AR technology to give users a sense of what daily life is like for someone with dementia. Another example is the National Autistic Society’s “Too Much Information” immersive film, which shows the effects of information overload on someone with autism. The charity has since turned this into an app for users to download and experience at home via a VR headset. In these examples there is no explicit ask beyond simply taking part in the experience.

B) To increase the effectiveness of fundraising. I am thinking here of examples which seek to use the technology to elicit empathy by “putting you in someone else’s shoes” in the context of fundraising. A good example is the VR short film The Source produced by Charity:Water, which puts viewers in the place of a young girl in Ethiopia and documents her journey each day to collect water. This is used by the charity at black-tie funding events and other occasions to bring home the importance of their work (and hopefully loosen the pockets of the wealthy attendees at the event). Unicef has done a similar thing with its Clouds Over Sidra film, and other charities have also started to incorporate VR and AR into their fundraising. And there is some evidence (at this stage anecdotal) that the approach is very effective: a Unicef spokesman was quoted as saying that they found that using VR halved the time taken to sign up one regular donor.


As AR and VR become more widespread, new challenges and issues will come to light. We are already seeing this in the form of stories about people being sexually assaulted and harassed in virtual environments, and growing debates over ethical questions such as whether murder in VR should be illegal. This is analogous to what has happened with the development of the internet; which has brought many benefits but has also brought new challenges (e.g. digital exclusion, which is the sole focus of charities like the Good Things Foundation (formerly known as the Tinder Foundation)), along with new versions of old challenges (e.g. online bullying and abuse). In the longer term, AR and VR technology is also likely to create new social needs that require existing charities to adapt or new charities to be set up.


One of the main drivers of charitable giving is awareness of need (see e.g. Bekkers and Wiepking (2010) for more on drivers of giving). And physical proximity plays an important role in this i.e. actually seeing someone in need or seeing for yourself the effects of a social problem. There is also research that shows that when this proximity effect is lessened, charitable giving declines: for instance a study from the US which found that wealthy people in economically homogenous areas give less than those who live in more diverse ones, but that the effect could be reversed simply by showing a short video of a child in need.

As outlined in point 1), there are clear opportunities to use AR and VR to bring people even closer to causes by prompting empathetic responses. However, there is also a danger that if the technology is not harnessed in the right way, it could drive people further away from causes.

To understand what I am getting at, consider the current anxiety about the “filter bubble” effect of social media, about which much has been written in the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. The idea here is that social media makes it far easier to spend all of your time interacting only with people who share your views and interests and this can lead to increased division, the reinforcement of negative beliefs and attitudes, and the prevalence and ready acceptance of “fake news”.

I have previously written about the ways in which the filter bubble effect could have a negative impact on giving (Is technology making us care less about each other? and What role can philanthropy play in the era of Brexit and Trump?). In the course of those posts I touched on the idea that AR and VR could actually exacerbate this problem even further in the future. Many experts believe that the future for AR and VR is not in their use as standalone technologies, but rather in their application to standard interfaces. So rather than being something of a novelty that you have to specifically seek out in order to play a game or have a particular experience, AR and VR will simply be part of the way you interact with the internet and other technologies.

Existing interfaces already use algorithms to shape the way in which the world is presented to you (e.g. Google’s search algorithm, Facebook’s news feed, Amazon’s recommendations etc). And people are starting to raise concerns about some of the potential dangers of these algorithms in terms of the way they entrench existing biases and limit your experience. The algorithms in use now are fairly hidden and their workings are opaque, but at least some of us are vaguely aware of them. Now imagine for a second that these algorithms were simply built into the fabric of an AR/VR interface that you used all the time, so that they did not merely suggest or recommend things, but actually dictated your experience of the world without you even realizing it. We would be trapped not so much in filter bubbles as filter cages.

In this scenario, the danger for philanthropy is that it becomes almost impossible for people to have the sorts of interactions and experiences that are necessary to prompt giving. These experience are often not that pleasant or comfortable because they force us to engage with awkward realities about the world; which is precisely why they elicit the reaction of “needing to do something about it” and hence give to charity. However, the role of most algorithms is to shape the world according to your existing preferences (not to mention biases) in order to present you with things you are going to like: not to present you with things you find awkward or uncomfortable. So it is very likely that the algorithms governing your AR/VR interface would tailor your experience to take all the unpleasant edges off and hence diminish your awareness of needs, and consequently your motivation for giving.

In order to break out of one’s filter cage in this scenario and come into contact with an uncomfortable truth that might spur you to give to charity, one of two things would have to happen:

You would need to deliberately choose to seek out that potentially awkward encounter (eg you would have to go and find the dementia simulator). But this is going to be much harder if you are not even aware of the ways in which your experience is being filtered. These awkward encounters don’t look like choices that are available to you but you have not made, but rather they just don’t exist at all as far as you are concerned.

Charities (and others) would need to be able to break through the filter cage somehow. There would have to be ways of engineering “nudges” within the context of an individual’s VR/AR experience that could give them the necessary prompt to do something charitable. This cannot simply follow the model of personalised advertising, either, where products and services make it through the filter if the algorithm decides that they fit an individual’s existing preferences. For one thing that would cement someone’s philanthropic outlook at a particular moment in time, and for another it would be likely to entrench bias towards a small number of causes.

If the increased use of AR and VR in interfaces is not to have a detrimental effect on people’s awareness of need, it seems clear that those designing the algorithms and architecture need to play a role. They will have to think through the ways in which they could incorporate mechanisms that allow some of the more uncomfortable elements of reality to puncture the filter bubbles people surround themselves with, and thus afford them the opportunity to connect with causes they care about. Otherwise there is a real danger that we all – either voluntarily or involuntarily – simply wrap ourselves up in our own self-centred little cocoons and start to care less about each other and the world around us.