This is the latest in my series of posts spotlighting underrepresented communities around the world and the entrepreneurs trying to help them. In this installment, I talk to the CEO of HOPE International, a global nonprofit now using virtual reality to bring peoples' stories to prospective donors.

When charities ask for donations, it's typically through traditional mail, email, television, and live events. Slideshows with statistics and photos of those in need are the norm for getting a target audience to emotionally connect with the charity, as well as its mission.

But in order to motivate potential donors to get involved, they often need more than just a slideshow, commercial, or brochure; they need to see it for themselves.

This is what Peter Greer, CEO of HOPE International, is doing--bringing the struggles of the impoverished right to its donors through virtual reality (VR).

Using VR to Bring in the Money

HOPE International is a Pennsylvania-based, Christian-centric organization that provides financial services, including savings and loans, to small businesses and families in developing nations. Currently working in 16 countries, HOPE has reached millions of families and provided over $800 million in micro-loans since being founded in 1997.

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HOPE sends people on trips to see the communities they are helping. However, it is also now utilizing cutting-edge VR technology to give people in the first world a first-person perspective of people living in poverty in the third world. It's the closest you can get to being there, as if you're stepping into someone else's shoes.

"Trips are fantastic, because you actually show up, you sit in that house, you see need and you see solution. We saw that people that went on trips were inspired to do more. The next generation of that is virtual reality. It solved the problem of showing need and solution in a way that is unlike any picture, or any brochure, or any annual report," Greer explains.

Working with Greenfish Labs, a virtual reality production company with offices in Philadelphia and Lancaster, PA, HOPE created a 360-degree video to tell the story of people in Malawi, Africa. Utilizing a VR headset attached to a smartphone, HOPE can take someone from their living room to a village in Malawi with the press of a button. With surround sound from headphones, the only thing missing from the experience is smell and touch.

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VR Gets an Overwhelming Response

The response to the virtual reality experience has been overwhelming since it debuted in December.

"You could see that tears started to appear underneath the goggles, and drip down their cheeks. You don't get that emotional experience from pictures or from someone else telling a story. There is an emotional response." Greer says.

While VR is just one of the many ways HOPE International promotes its mission, the emotional response is already translating into real results for the organization. According to Greer, engagement and support from those who took part in the virtual reality experience is increasing.

"I think virtual reality is a tool that decreases the distance between people, and allows you to be there in their home, allows you to be as if you are really there. When you close the proximity gap, I think people want to respond," Greer explains.

Currently, virtual reality technology is being used to reinvent video games, create new concert experiences, and even bring people  right into movies. But HOPE is showing that there's the potential to do more than just entertain with VR; there's potential to make a difference in the world.

Anyone with a VR headset can experience HOPE International's Malawi experience via YouTube's 3D video player.


If you like stories about entrepreneurs helping out underserved communities, check out some of the other stories in the series. Meet the entrepreneur who went from troubled little brother to 'Big Brother of the Year.' Or, meet one of  the first Latina CEOs to interview at YCombinator, and how she's looking to curb workplace bias.