How Nonprofits Can Leverage Virtual Reality

Virtual reality presents incredible opportunities for nonprofits. Schools, museums, and performing arts organizations are leveraging its use everyday to teach empathy and cultural understanding, empower people to experience faraway places, and provide the public deeper immersion into the arts. Through virtual reality, mixed reality, and augmented reality, nonprofits can extend their reach beyond their website, social media presence, and physical location. They can be anywhere and share their mission with anyone.

Here are several trailblazing organizations leveraging this experiential technology.

Global Nomads Group. This organization is making an impact by connecting middle- and high-school students with their peers around the world, breaking down barriers separating youth from the global community.

Classical Music Reimagined. Faced with aging audiences and declining interest in classical music, the industry may have just found a way to leverage new engagement strategies through Classical Music Reimagined, demonstrating value to brand new audiences.

Guggenheim. Last year the Guggenheim took a leap and collaborated with Google to enhance the museum experience with virtual reality.  They speak of an enhanced experience not as a replacement but as something different, “a virtual experience of a museum will, necessarily, be fundamentally different from a visit to the physical building, and we trust that those differences can be strengths when in the hands of an engaged public and teachers.”

Think outside of the box – or put the box over your eyes – and ask, “could this technology take my organization to the next level?”

Gloucester’s ‘Angel Initiative’ a Way Out for Heroin Addicts

(The City of Gloucester, Massachusetts)

Over the past two years, the United States’ addiction to opioids has come into full view. With users injecting heroin on public transportation in Philadelphia and rural areas such as Vermont witnessing an influx of guns related to the drug trade, the larger ramifications of the opioid epidemic are emerging – and it is not pretty.

Deaths relating to drug abuse are surging, as people turn to substance abuse as a release from the stress of a stagnant economy and flat-lining social mobility. Nationally, 78 people die each day from opioid overdoses.

The cataclysmic rise in heroin use stems largely from widespread prescription pill abuse, a result of over a decade’s worth of seemingly indiscriminate dissemination from the medical profession of powerful painkillers of the opioid family. After becoming addicted – and running out of prescribed pills – people from all areas, rural and urban, have found a cheap and readily accessible alternative in heroin.

The costs – both economic and social – are immense. But some cities and organizations are exploring ways outside of the failing war on drugs to deal with the issue, treating the the opioid epidemic as a public health emergency rather than a purely criminal matter.

Last year, the City of Gloucester in Massachusetts began the Angel Initiative – a program that permits users to turn in addictive substances in return for a dedicated volunteer to help them find services from housing to drug rehabilitation. Users can participate in the program without incurring any criminal charges relating to drug possession or use. 

After a year in operation, the program appears to be working.

Compared to the first five months of 2015 in Gloucester, during which 5 heroin users overdosed, there has only been one overdose death related to heroin  in 2016.

According to  Gloucester Police Chief Leonard Campanello, the ripple effects of the program are also positive: “It appears that crimes that are ancillary to the disease of addiction—the crimes of desperation: shoplifting, larceny, smash and grabs—have declined since the beginning of the program.”

Indeed, drug-related crime in the city has dropped 27 percent.

But it remains to be seen if the Gloucester’s model is adaptable to other cities. Gloucester is a small, ethnically and culturally homogenous city with just under 29,000 inhabitants. It has a high median income and a progressive sensibility – factors that may play into the success of a forward-looking program for which city officials were able allocate funding.

At the very least, however, the Angel Initiative serves as a reminder that an alternative to the ill-begotten war on drugs is feasible. Continuing to criminalize a public health emergency will only further exacerbate the dire conditions plaguing U.S. citizens caught in the throes of addiction.

Red Cross Gives Money Directly to Canadian Wildfire Evacuees

Much of central Canada is still ablaze. According to reports, wildfires just spread to the Saskatchewan province having torn through Fort McMurray over the past two weeks, scorching well over 100,000 hectares of land and displacing more than 80,000 people. The number of individual fires numbers at least 49, and more than 16,000 structures have been completely destroyed.

This is a harrowing disaster for those directly impacted. Their homes and belongings destroyed, they face an uncertain future and a steep hill to climb before regaining normalcy in their lives.

The Red Cross – in conjunction with Canada’s federal government – is trying fresh approach to disaster relief that places financial resources directly in the hands of those impacted by the wildfires. Debit cards have been distributed to people fleeing the destruction, with each adult receiving $1,250 with an additional $500 for each child. As of this week, the total funds distributed amounted to $65 million disbursed to more than 63,000 evacuees.

According to Canadian Red Cross CEO Conrad Sauve, the organization’s move is a milestone in disaster relief strategy, calling it “the most important cash transfer we have done in our history.” The ongoing disaster – set to break records for the costliest in Canadian history – certainly warrants bold efforts.

Directly distributing funds to disaster victims, however, is historically controversial, considered by some in the humanitarian sector to lack the oversight and transparency of top-down organizational spending through which aid groups provide services for the dispossessed rather than providing them financial resources directly.

This conventional wisdom was shaken following the Haiti earthquake in 2010, for which the Red Cross raised half a billion dollars from an energized international public struck by the tragic scenes splayed on television sets across the world. Much of the money vanished, without tangible infrastructure or humanitarian improvements in the poor Caribbean nation. A joint report from NPR and ProPublica found a number of dismaying statistics; for example, the Red Cross initially announced that it provided homes for 130,000 people, whereas reporters were only able to uncover six permanent homes.

The Red Cross is also known for its decision to use funds donated in the wake of 9/11 for general operating costs, infuriating the public and ultimately bringing down the organization’s chief officer.

As the Canadian wildfires represent one of the highest profile disasters in the Western hemisphere of the last decade, perhaps the decision to provide funds directly to victims is – in part – an attempt to pursue the organization’s mission without the liability of generating another front-page snafu tarnishing the humanitarian group’s image.

How the evacuees fair in the short- and long-term will indicate whether such a strategy is worth emulating for future disasters.

Vertical Farming: The Future of Basic Needs Nonprofits?

Basic needs organizations may have a new model to emulate that could provide a fresh and constantly renewing source of produce to help those in need.

INFARM, a German firm, has expanded upon the common design of vertical farms which have enabled growers to ship produce over shorter distances. The company’s “Kräuter Garten” is made for in-store use, providing on-site, functional farming to generate fresh produce.

The company’s vision is to create self-sustaining cities, capable of cultivating food sources with out taxing far away land-bases. The implication for basic needs groups could be enormous. If the design proves feasible, then charity organizations could maintain low-cost, renewable food sources to provide healthy produce to those with food insecurity.

While seemingly complex, the system is controlled through a smartphone application, indicating a small learning curve for nonprofit service providers.

As INFARM CEO Erez Galonska remarks,

We believe our food system should be de-centralize and production should get closer to the consumer. This is essential in terms of the impact on the environment as well as for significantly improving the safety and quality of our food.

Those very qualities could make a massive impact on underserved communities, who could benefit from cutting out the production, transportation, and retail steps from the food distribution process, instead enjoying direct access to charity pantries operating vertical farming systems.

Watch INFARM’s informational video below to learn more: 

Detroit: Leader in Philanthropy Innovation

Detroit’s economy has long been in the doldrums. The slow decline of the city’s once-great auto industry – along with the deleterious effects of the housing bubble and 2007 economic crash – rendered Michigan’s largest metropolitan area perhaps the poorest of its size in the United States.

Adversity, however, can breed innovation. With a little assistance, Detroit is quickly becoming a laboratory for community empowerment and grassroots organizing. The city’s nonprofits are benefiting immensely from these trends, and could point the way to the future for the nation’s philanthropy sector in addition to revitalizing this great U.S. city.

The Ford Foundation – the nation’s largest grant-maker and beneficiary of Michigan’s historically dominant economy – made waves earlier this year when it announced that it would revamp its guiding principles for awarding grants, directing all of its efforts toward combatting economic and racial iniquities as well as committing more funding toward nonprofits’ overhead as opposed to programmatic funding. This underutilized funding methodology itself could revolutionize the way that nonprofits succeed. With actual investment and the ability to acquire capital assets, nonprofits can hire, develop, and retain staff as well as grow operational capacity without having to worry about rigid line items delineated by myopic grant conditions.

The Ford Foundation’s scope, while including Detroit, is national. Detroit-focused foundations and initiatives are also similarly rethinking the game, and are generating an innovative philanthropy climate as a result.

A collection of stakeholders called Detroit Future City offers an exciting vision: unity between business, community, and philanthropy groups working to produce a just environment that improves quality of life and increases economic opportunity. The ad hoc organization grew out of the technocrat-authored Detroit Future City Strategic Framework. The document explores what assets the city of Detroit has, and expounds on possible ways to utilize them with the ultimate goal of pulling Detroit and its citizens out of the morass of economic depression and urban blight.

According to the group’s website, Detroit Future City is predicated on a holistic approach to addressing the city’s ills:

It’s not based on a vision of only how the city looks, but also how it works. It is based on a realistic understanding of current resources; is flexible enough to respond to changing needs and opportunities; and can evolve over time as it’s used and conditions change.

A look at the organization’s list of chartered initiatives yields an impressive array of ongoing and completed programs ranging from small business development to neighbood solar initiatives. A number of foundations – including The Kresge Foundation, The W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation – have pooled millions of dollars to distribute to the various initiatives, which involve nonprofit, business, and community partners working together.

Looking to grow both businesses and community groups through joint charters, Detroit Future City heralds an interconnected local economy that strives toward the greater social good. This trend may be catching on, evident in Philadelphia’s pro-start-up climate. In the City of Brotherly Love, new businesses can defer certain taxes by contributing to local nonprofits. These initiatives spread the benefits of economic development, grow local philanthropy cultures, and create essential ties between private and nonprofit entities that benefit the community.

A number of businesses from the private sector are also stepping up to help nonprofits improve the quality of life in Detroit. This month, J.P Morgan Chase announced that it would continue offering its support to a number of area nonprofit organizations. Twelve managers from different sectors of the company’s operations – divided into four teams – will assist four organizations in their areas of expertise. The recent round of advisors will assist Eastern Market, EcoWorks, Greening of Detroit, and TechTown.  Executives from J.P. Morgan Chase have committed to sending two sets of teams to assist Detroit nonprofits per year through 2018.

While there is still a great deal of hard work to do, Detroit is making great strives towards revitalization. Part-and-parcel with this process is the growth and success of the city’s philanthropy sector – a fact that is not lost on those leading the charge for Detroit’s rebirth.

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