#1024: Using VR for Non-Profit Outreach & Fundraising with Hope for Haiti

Hope for Haiti is a Haitian-based, non-profit with the goal to improve the quality of life for Haitian people through education, medical, clean water initiatives, and economic development programs. After a visceral experience with a number of VR projects at VR World in New York City, Sarah Porter, who the Director of Business Development & Strategic Partnerships at Hope for Haiti, set out on a journey to explore how to use immersive technologies for outreach, education, and fundraising. She collaborated with Max Noir from China-based FXG Studios to create a Unity-based Hope for Haiti VR world (available on SideQuest) featuring a classroom (with interactive chalk), clean water punk, some informational videos, waterfall, beach, and campfire that serves as a social VR platform to hold events and guided tours through some of the projects, people, and stories of people working for their non-profit. They also have a NFT gallery featuring a number of artists who donated art to be sold to raise money for their non-profit.

Porter was a speaker with Noir at AWE in a session titled Virtual Reality for Social Impact in Haiti, and also had a spot on the AWE Expo floor playground showing off their experience to get feedback and support from the broader XR community. They held an initial event on October 20th, and have more plans to expand their virtual Haiti work and have more outreach, education, and fundraising events. I had a chance to catch up with Porter at the end of the Augmented World Expo to recap her experiences on the expo floor as well as the feedback she was receiving about their project from the broader XR community.

The Hope for Haiti experience is now available on SideQuest.


This is a listener-supported podcast through the Voices of VR Patreon.

Music: Fatality

Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. Hello, my name is Kent Bye, and welcome to the Voices of VR Podcast. So in today's episode, we're featuring a nonprofit named Hope for Haiti. They were featured as a speaker at the Augmented World Expo and also had a demo that was showing there on the playground area of the Expo Hall. Hope for Haiti is a nonprofit. They are based in Haiti and they are doing different things around education, health, clean water, and helping create economic sustainability programs. They have lots of different efforts and initiatives just as a nonprofit. Sarah Porter is somebody who... really captivated about the potential for what might be possible with using the medium of virtual reality to be able to do outreach, education, and potentially even fundraising. She had a little bit of resistance at first, but continued to push forth and doing lots of different innovative stuff with immersive technologies, including a VR experience that they created in collaboration with FXG VR, and created this whole virtual world that was a recreation of Haiti and some of the schools that they put together for the Haitians there. Then, when the pandemic hit, the rest of the nonprofit really saw the value of being able to hold virtual events where they would be able to bring people in virtually and give guided tours about the work that they're doing. So, I had a chance to try out the experience. The experience is, you go into this world that has one building with three different rooms. One of the rooms is a classroom where they do a lot of education stuff. They have a couple of videos in one of the middle rooms with different pictures and more information and context for the different type of work that they do in Haiti. And then the third room was an NFT gallery. So they've been selling different NFTs in collaboration with a number of different artists. And then the rest of the space, I guess there's like a waterfall, there's a bridge, there's a campfire, there's a beach. And so trying to recreate different aspects of the beauty of Haiti. So I had a chance to try out the demo and I'll be unpacking a little bit more here at the end. You can try it out on SideQuest to see it for yourself. But I think this is an area where the nonprofit starting to get into these immersive technologies to start to see what are the potentials to be able to do outreach, education and fundraising. So, that's what we're covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. So, this interview with Sarah happened on Thursday, November 11th, 2021. So, with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.

[00:02:20.707] Sarah Porter: So, my name is Sarah Porter. I'm the Director of Business Development and Strategic Partnerships for Hope for Haiti. We're a non-profit. We've been working in the south of Haiti for 32 years now. And we always have this question, we can't bring everyone to Haiti. Is there a way to bring Haiti to everyone? And I've really been thinking about VR and how that could be a solution. So my personal VR journey, I live in New York City and I went to VR World in Midtown Manhattan and I tried all the different experiences. I put on the headsets and I was just blown away. To the point where I couldn't even play the zombie game because I thought that zombies were going to come eat me. But I just couldn't stop thinking, how can the nonprofit world be using this amazing immersive technology to share their story, to share their work, to connect to new supporters, to new donors, to new networks in a way that, you know, the nonprofit world hasn't really seen before. So I've really been the champion at Hope for Haiti saying, how about we use this again to bring Haiti to new people?

[00:03:24.959] Kent Bye: So maybe we can start with providing a little bit more context as to you and your background and your journey into working with these immersive technologies.

[00:03:32.525] Sarah Porter: Yeah, so this is new to me. This is a brand new world. I have a bachelor's in social work. I joined the Peace Corps after college. I served in the Republic of Macedonia for almost two and a half years. I've been in international work for a while. I worked for the International Rescue Committee, focused on resettling refugees, did some work around human rights in Iran, and now I'm with Hope for Haiti, a poverty alleviation organization. And it really did just kind of happen randomly, my journey into VR. So after I went to VR World in Manhattan, I begged for an Oculus Quest headset. And then once I got my Oculus Quest headset, started doing the different games, you know, the different experiences, I just could not stop thinking about it. To the point where my organization, I think, just got so sick of me asking, can we please try this? But then COVID hit. And then I think the need became so clear and so obvious to everyone. We really need to explore this virtual world because it's not going away. You know, we had no events, you know, now for almost two years, nothing in person. So we're always trying to innovate, but it's hard. I mean, you know, the nonprofit world, we're all vying for those same donor dollars. And I think the ones who are, maybe ahead of the game a little bit more, think about where the world is going. Think about where the industries are going. And I think it's clear, this is where the world is going. Why don't we be a part of it?

[00:05:00.242] Kent Bye: Lewis Lawson So, yeah, maybe you can give a bit more context as to Hope for Haiti. You've been there for a number of years, but 32 years is quite a long time. Maybe you could give a little bit more of the origin story for how this organization came about.

[00:05:12.124] Sarah Porter: Yeah, definitely. So we've been working in Haiti for 32 years in the south. We're based in Lakai, so southwest of Haiti. And one of the things I really love about the organization is the majority of our staff is Haitian. They are from the local community, you know, that it's personal to them. I always say this, you know, I'm not Haitian. I don't know what's best for Haiti, but my Haitian colleagues do. So here in the U.S., my job is to help raise the resources and the support so our team in Haiti can do the work, which could include, you know, some new innovative ways and technologies. So, yeah, our primary focus is poverty alleviation, and we have four core program models. And just to give you sort of a quick backstory of how the organization was founded, When our founder went down to Haiti 32 years ago, a young girl approached her on the street and asked for money. And our founder said, well, what do you need money for? And she said, so I can attend school. So Haiti doesn't have a robustly publicly funded school system like we do in the US. And it falls on the backs of parents to pay those fees so their children can attend school. And a lot of times those fees are unattainable. That means you have a large amount of children who do not have access to education. So we work with 24 schools in 24 communities and we really make that the hub of our work. So we help provide teacher salary subsidies to ensure that teachers are paid and that again those kids can go to school. We also work with school directors to see every year what do they need, you know, how can we help these students thrive. But over the years it became clear not only do kids need a place to go to school, they also need health care. Where do they go when they get sick? So we have a very large health care program. We have a huge infirmary in the city of Lakai. We serve tens of thousands of patients a year. We have a dental program. That's something that also can be very difficult in Haiti. There's not a lot of dentists. We also do lab work, we do preventative care, diabetes, and we have an amazing public health team, and I can attest that our nurses are probably the coolest people on the planet. We also have a mobile health clinic, so our doctors go out into the rural areas, you know, the mountains, where it's very hard to access health care, and they do a pop-up clinic to serve between 1 and 200 patients when they go. But again, over the years, not only do kids need a place to learn, a place to go for health care, children and families need access to clean water. So we have a clean water program. Not only do we build wells, but we also distribute water filtration systems that can be used at the household level. And now we have parents come to us and say, My kids don't get sick anymore and they don't miss school. So again, we're looking for that holistic approach where everything fits together. And then last, actually our newest program is focused on economic development because you have to have a way for people to thrive. You have to have that opportunity. So we invest in Haitian businesses that have a social impact and we make loans and grants. So everything comes full circle. Again, this is led by our Haitian team in Haiti. And yes, that was a lot of words, but that's as simply as I can explain what the organization's mission is.

[00:08:44.820] Kent Bye: OK, yeah, that's quite interesting for me, who has gone through your VR experience that is introducing me to the program. But I was able to get a lot more of the story, the history, the context of what you're doing in this brief conversation. And so I guess it's a challenge of how to translate all of that into an immersive experience. But maybe before we dive into that translation, what were the events that you used to do before? How do you usually tell the story? And how do you go about raising funds for a nonprofit, The Hope for Haiti?

[00:09:14.365] Sarah Porter: Yeah, so in the before times, we actually had two major galas every year. So we had one in Stanford, Connecticut, and then another one down where we also have an office in Naples, Florida. Obviously, those got canceled. So not only did that revenue stream dry up, the issue is, you know, our program costs are still the same. And now that Haiti was just hit by another earthquake in August, the needs are even more high and more clear. So again, there's a need to figure out how do we continue to raise the resources and support to do the work, but we're going to have to think of some new ways.

[00:09:51.221] Kent Bye: I see. So this gala, what would happen at the gala? What were the type of activities and what were the things that you would do to tell the stories of Haiti that was really relying on a lot of ways of these face-to-face gatherings?

[00:10:02.121] Sarah Porter: Yeah, absolutely. So a lot of times we would actually have some of our Haitian team come to the gala so they could personally talk about the work they're doing in their communities. We would also have our program areas represented. So sometimes we'd have like, you know, different tables or little booths, you know, focus on our clean water work or our health care work. And, you know, during sort of, you know, the more typical gala setting, you have dinner, but you also have time to really talk about what were the impacts we saw over the last year. You know, we would use photo, video, you know, tell the stories and then share, you know, where we want to go. This is why we need your support. And there is something about being in that in-person setting that moves people. especially when they're hearing, you know, why their support is so important and why it will continue to be so important to help us reach our goals. But of course, you know, the world has not allowed that over the last almost two years.

[00:10:59.409] Kent Bye: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. So that, that makes sense in terms of the types of ways of connecting the progress and the stories with the people who are there. I'm just going to speak from my own phenomenological experience of what I saw and then we can sort of brainstorm and talk about the thing. So when I went into the experience of the hope for Haiti, there's a building with different rooms and I'm going into the rooms and there's no people there and sometimes there'll be like an audio narration that is playing and then other times it's just a classroom or other photos and then I walked out and then there was a water well but I missed it and it kind of moved around. So it's basically like an empty shell of a virtual space but difficult for me to understand the larger context. It was helpful for me to hear from you that in Haiti there's no money for public schools. And so that information is maybe transmitted through the audio, but I'm also in the context of AWE. There's lots of noise or whatever. And so my attention towards, you know, really listening to every single last word is less. But also I found whenever there's trying to translate these ideas into something that is purely focused in the audio rather than the volumetric affordances of the medium, then sometimes the visual field dominates to the point where it's even hard for me to process a lot of information. So I guess my experience from the virtual world was that I went into this space but didn't have, I guess, enough context to understand what was before, what you're doing, or anything like that. So anyway, that's some of my initial reactions to that. But it's a larger problem of translating these stories what you're doing into an immersive story or some sort of ways that uses the affordances of the medium that helps to give the larger context or if people are already aware of some of these things and how to deepen those things for people who already know some of those contextual dimensions. So there's kind of an onboarding of new people but then also deepening of the people who are already on board.

[00:12:44.678] Sarah Porter: Right. So I think the space can work in a couple of different ways. So talking about how we can't do events anymore in person, or at least, you know, those obviously have been put on hold for a while. You know, we could actually start hosting events in that virtual world. So, for example, on October 20th, we had sort of a soft launch event before the app became available for public download, where we had a small group of VR users in the space with us, not only to test it out and to be the first ones to see it, But what I really liked about it and what I thought worked really well is not only, you know, did it feel intimate because it was a smaller group of people and we could actually, just like a real event, we could go up to each other, you know, with our avatars and we could talk. But our CEO was actually able to bring everyone into one of the classrooms, sit down virtually and talk more about our work and give more context because actually everyone who came was not familiar with our work. These were new people. You know, these were not people in our current network. And he was able to then also talk very personally about the earthquake and his experience, what the needs are in Haiti right now. He flew down just a few days after, stayed there for three weeks. And even though, again, we were all virtual and avatars, I was just so inspired. Like I'm looking around the room and I'm seeing everyone just listening and asking questions and having a dialogue. And then if you go into the classroom next to the one that we were in, that's the dedicated Hope for Haiti room. So similar to almost like a museum gallery, you walk in, you see program photos about our work, there's little blurbs explaining what you're seeing, and then you have some of our program videos playing. So you can go in alone as sort of a solo user and just take the time to get a little bit more context. And then the third classroom, we're getting into all the things, is we recently partnered with NFT artists who wanted to raise support through their NFTs to contribute to earthquake response and relief. A lot of schools were damaged, some were destroyed. So we now have a fund where these NFTs are supporting earthquake relief. The VR studio was able to actually take some of those NFTs and virtually put them on the walls of the classroom. So that's the third room. And again, you know, in the future, we can switch that out. But just to give people some context, you know, if you are able to go to our NFT gallery when you either buy an NFT or donate an NFT, you know, this is what you're going to be supporting.

[00:15:16.094] Kent Bye: Yeah, I like that idea of having the events and almost like a guided tour where there's someone giving a live transmission and it's like when I go to a museum or a gallery and there's someone who's the docent who tells the story of the art and you go and it's all like this oral tradition. It's live and you can ask questions and whatnot. So I think that's a really Powerful model the model that I saw here was that I was in the space by myself And so maybe do you like imagine that the real use case is that you're gonna have these gatherings? And these events that are able to do more of those live things or are you hoping that people? Go on there on their own and be able to get the same level without having that type of live event. I

[00:15:53.320] Sarah Porter: I think the social aspect is really powerful, and it's a social app. We're able to have, I think, 100 users at a time. So again, we could run these events, or we could do smaller groups where we could give a tour, kind of like we did on October 20th, that soft launch. We could really walk people through the space, walk them through our programs, our work, and really paint that context for them. You know, we could also do even private tours if there was a donor that we wanted to, again, give a little more background on what we're doing and where we hope to go, we could take them into the space. In the before times, I used to do a lot more public speaking and I would go even to different corporations, talk to employee groups, but how great is after I've told you a little bit about Hope for Heating, what we do, I could pass out 10 headsets and we could all put the headsets on together. And then again, I could continue that conversation. So I think it works in a lot of different ways. But I also think for the existing VR community who's not familiar with us, you know, getting more connected to social causes and social impact beyond games, getting them interested. You know, not everyone knows a lot about Haiti, but maybe this will spark people to say, oh, I would like to learn more. How can I be involved? How can I be an ally? and even thinking about, you know, the younger generation. Before I came out here, I was in the Bay Area with some family, and my young, young cousin, he's never put on a headset before, and I was showing everyone, you know, I want to show you the new app, I'm going to be talking at AWE, and he was just obsessed. Like, he did not want to take the headset off. So then I'm starting to think, well, would there be a way to even use this in schools as a way, again, to connect kids to a world that's bigger than themselves. They might not always have the opportunity to go to a place like Haiti or meet people from all over the world, but in VR, you can.

[00:17:48.428] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, I think what's interesting to me about what you're doing is that I've seen a lot of individual nonprofits that collaborate with an immersive storyteller that has a piece at Sundance. But this is the first time that I've seen a nonprofit try to go through producing a social app that then goes to the existing channels of the SideQuest and App Lab. And so it's sort of trying to even navigate that as a VR developer is difficult, but then to add on top of all the background of being a nonprofit and doing something that is really in a space that hasn't really been done as much. And so that was part of what was interesting is like, I haven't really heard of a lot of other nonprofits that are doing that. So you're really walking the pathless path of trying to figure that out. So what has that been like in trying to navigate this whole new realm of VR app distribution and getting these experiences that you're building in Unity into the hands of people in a way that's easy for them to download and actually experience it?

[00:18:37.126] Sarah Porter: So we're really excited about that. And I've been in the nonprofit world a long time, my entire career. I haven't seen this being done yet. I really think, though, this is where it's going. If we were to fast forward a few years, I think it's going to be very common for a lot of industries, including the nonprofit world, to say, OK, how can we be using VR and immersive tech to share our mission? I have big dreams. If we can get additional funding or investors that again want to see VR being used for the more social impact spear, we could have our other program areas represented. We could have our healthcare clinic replicated. The school that we built, That's based on a real school in Haiti. I gave the developers blueprints and photos. We could do that with our other program areas, but we could also take a team down to film 360 stereoscopic and capture the beauty of Haiti, the work being done in action. have one of our doctors come up to you in the clinic and explain what she does every day, how it changes lives. That, to me, is so powerful. I've really been thinking a lot about the VR and empathy connection, how VR really puts you literally in someone else's shoes and builds those empathic connections in a way that text photo and video do not. And that's why I really think the non-private world, we need this technology and we need these partnerships. So I'm out here really, again, trying to build these new partnerships. We've never done this before, but I know there are aligned industries and organizations and others that say, we want to build this with you.

[00:20:20.100] Kent Bye: Yeah, as I was talking earlier, I was thinking about how, like, oh, wouldn't it be cool to have, like, a recording of someone who has, like, an avatar that's, you know, because in virtual worlds that are computer-generated, you want to have, in some ways, something that's in that same aesthetic. So maybe something that's a rigged character that's, giving us like yeah but maybe just listening to what you're saying now with the 360 video being able to have actual people come up and being able to speak I think it has a deeper emotional connection to what they're saying but to use the virtual space to set that larger context of a village in a space and to see how things that you're doing are connected to these individual locations so that you could be able to roam around but then maybe stumble into a place that then cuts to a 360 video that allows you to have the thing that I was missing in the experience which was somebody to give a little bit more context and a tour of telling me a story about what's happening here.

[00:21:11.048] Sarah Porter: Oh, I love that. You totally get it. So we, our big dream is to really create almost this, uh, this Haiti universe, this map. So the school experience that could be just maybe one location on that map. And then you could travel to other parts or stumble into these almost little spheres or little vignettes where, okay, now you're speaking with one of our doctors or now you're on the coast. One of the most beautiful places in the world, I think is actually the Haitian seaside. You don't see that in the news. So again, I think this can also be a tool for us to help change the narrative around Haiti, which again is poverty, corruption, natural disaster, end of story. We know that's not true. How do we use VR to tell that story? And I just think it works perfectly. So again, if we can figure out how to continue to build the map, to build the app, I think that's such a great template and roadmap for other nonprofits to do the same thing. And I really hope that we can help lead the way.

[00:22:09.954] Kent Bye: Yeah, well, we're just wrapping up here at Augmented World Expo. It's been 18 months to 24 months since anybody's really gone to much events. What were some of the reactions? What was your experience like here giving a speech, but also being in the playground and Expo, being able to show a little bit of the demo? And what were some of the reactions that you got?

[00:22:25.970] Sarah Porter: Oh, it was so fun. And again, I'm new to this world. This is my first time at AWE. But one thing that I thought was just so cool, and I spent a lot of time in the booth putting the headset on people, showing them the app. Most people are very familiar with VR, very familiar with this world, with the headsets. And the reactions we got were so positive. people would put on the headset and I could see like okay they're in the world or they're in the school based on what they were saying and I would hear oh my gosh this is so cool oh whoa look at that over there whoa this is amazing I've never seen a non-profit do this before and that to me just reiterated oh yeah we're on the right track we're doing the right thing based on some experts you know reactions to this.

[00:23:09.278] Kent Bye: Awesome. Great. And so finally, what do you think the ultimate potential of all these immersive technologies might be and what they might be able to enable?

[00:23:17.513] Sarah Porter: Yeah, I mean, I just think, again, that connection that can be so hard, especially after this last year and a half, so much, you know, was lost and taken away. Now we can be transported to these places, to these worlds, but connecting with others that we never would have before, or being able to get, again, that empathy of feeling what it might be like, you know, to attend a school in Haiti, or just this perspective and this world that's bigger than ourself. It almost feels like VR can help make the world smaller, but in a good way, where we're more connected, we're more part of each other's universe. And I just love that. I think this is where we should be going.

[00:24:00.735] Kent Bye: Awesome. Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say to the broader immersive community?

[00:24:04.872] Sarah Porter: Yeah, I mean, again, we would love to share more what we're doing. Please download the app on SideQuest when it's available and check out our website. It's just www.hopeforhady.com and find us. We'd love to collaborate in whatever way possible.

[00:24:20.903] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming here to AWE to show what you're doing to the rest of the XR community and for joining me today on the podcast to give me a little bit more context of where you're at now and where you're going.

[00:24:31.650] Sarah Porter: Awesome. Thank you so much, Kent. I really appreciate it.

[00:24:34.832] Kent Bye: So that was Sarah Porter. She's the director of business development and strategic partnerships at Hope for Haiti. So I have a number of different takeaways about this interview is that first of all, well, I haven't seen a lot of nonprofits go out to create a VR experience. Certainly within the Oculus realm, there's the Oculus for good, which has partnered up XR creators with a number of different nonprofits over the years, mostly focusing on a lot of 360 video, but certainly some interactive pieces out there as well. But I haven't seen so many nonprofits go out and create their own social VR experience and actually launch it out into any store. It was submitted to the App Lab. I don't think they ever really heard back in terms of it being accepted. It did get onto SideQuest now, so it is available publicly. There'll be a link down in the description for you to go check it out. Like I described in the beginning, it is a fairly sparse experience in terms of when you go in there by yourself. There's a building with some rooms. Probably the most interesting piece is the middle room, where you go in and there's actually two videos that are playing. One of the things that I found when I saw it was it was a little confusing to have two videos playing, one of them which has sound and the other one doesn't have any sound. And the one that it's on the left, which is the one I look at first, is like actually a shorter video. It's about a minute long or so. It has like subtitles. And it took me a bit to understand that there was a second video that was even playing that had like a different length. It was like a minute and 50 seconds or so. So what I would recommend is just having one video per room. But also just a larger perspective is that it'd probably be better to have some avatars or 360 videos that are giving a little bit more context. I think the virtual reality experience does a good job of setting the overall context, but there's other ways in which that it's probably easier to communicate some of that information. Like I had told Sarah in the conversation, I got a lot out of just the brief conversation to get a lot of the story and the context. And what are the ways to really translate that as you're embedded into this environment? How do you start to either walk around and learn about it from people that are there if you're going in there not knowing anything? And there's different water pumps, but you know it's hard to connect the dots and so yeah Just thinking about generally how do you? Take what they're doing and have the experiential design so that you can have an immersive experience that is able to communicate all the different information That you need right now. I think there's a lot of leveraging other media like written text and captions and videos this is really meant to be like a group experience meaning that a There's a classroom that's in there that, when they have the live event, they go in there and they talk about what they do in realms of education, but to really start to think about other ways of having either avatars or 360 videos that are coming up as well. So, yeah, I think there's a lot of room to expand and build upon what they're already doing, but I think it's definitely worth checking out to see what's happening in terms of the nonprofit space and starting to think about how to use these virtual environments to be able to start to tell the broader story of the work that they're doing in these different regions. And there's an Augmented World Expo session with Max Noir from FXG VR, as well as Sarah Porter from Hope for Haiti, where they are able to dig into a little bit more details and show a little bit more photos. I mean, this conversation actually encapsulated a lot of the other stuff that they were trying to communicate within that session. If you do have ideas and want to help out, then I'm sure they'll be able to both accept any donations of NFTs and NFT art that they're selling, as well as cryptocurrency donations. If you do want to actually help out and have other ideas for how you can help out with some of the immersive experiences, then definitely check out the SideQuest app and feel free to reach out to Sarah either on Twitter or LinkedIn. So, that's all I have for today, and I just wanted to thank you for listening to the Voices of VR podcast. And if you enjoy the podcast, then please do spread the word, tell your friends, and consider becoming a member of the Patreon. This is a listener-supported podcast, and so I do rely upon donations from people like yourself in order to continue to bring you this coverage. So you can become a member and donate today at patreon.com slash voicesofvr. Thanks for listening.

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