One organization wants to share the stories of nonprofits helping young people survive and thrive, and it’s using an innovative medium to do it.
Epic Foundation, which aims to “disrupt the philanthropic industry” through digital tools, has launched a collection of virtual reality short films highlighting the impact of 12 youth-focused organizations around the world. The series, called #Epic360, is an effort to change how the nonprofit world uses 360-degree video, and ultimately change how people give to good causes.
Alexandre Mars, founder and CEO of Epic Foundation, said the VR short films further the idea that technology can connect people with important projects — putting you on the frontlines, even if you’re thousands of miles away.
“VR could bring impact and engagement,” Mars said. “We build tools. We push people. We understand what is needed, and we try to provide solutions when we are able to. That’s what we do at Epic.”
The collection features nonprofits around the world, including the Ali Forney Center, a Harlem-based LGBTQ youth homeless shelter; Reffetorio Gastromotiva, which prepares Rio de Janeiro’s young people for careers in the culinary industry; and SNEHA, which empowers women and children in Mumbai’s urban slums.
Epic Foundation began the project in May 2016, starting with SNEHA in Dharavi, a slum with a population of approximately 1 million.
“VR could bring impact and engagement.”
“The problem with a slum in Mumbai is lack of knowledge,” Vanessa D’Souza, CEO of SNEHA, says in the VR film above. “The women do not have adequate information on how to look after their families and how they can access resources that are available.”
The one-minute film puts the viewer in the middle of Dharavi, showing the local life and landscape. As D’Souza narrates the video in the background, you can stand in the middle of the street as children play and run around you, and even sit in a room where SNEHA teaches pregnant women and new mothers about best practices.
Mars said the project started in Dharavi because people don’t often feel moved by hard numbers, like the fact that the average life expectancy in some Mumbai slums is 39 years old. A 360-degree video can actually introduce you to these communities, and prompt you to take action.
“It’s very different if you film something in the slum,” Mars said, “because very few people will be able to get there.”
Notably, #Epic360 doesn’t feel voyeuristic — a trap many organizations fall into when using virtual reality.
Instead of offering “poverty porn,” exploiting people’s lives to share heartbreaking images for cash donations, Epic’s VR films tell empowering stories. The videos don’t just present problems; they illustrate how nonprofits are tackling them, and changing lives.
In the short film featuring the Ali Forney Center, 20-year-old Skye Adrian tells his own story of how the organization helped him when he was homeless. Now, he’s helping young LGBTQ people find the same impactful services.
“I’m helping persons who are in the very same position that I was a year ago,” Adrian says in the video. “I would have wanted someone to be able to tell me what to do and help me navigate the system.”
Epic Foundation was founded in 2014 after Mars, who has launched and sold five tech-focused startups over the past 20 years, traveled to various regions around the world. He asked people two questions. One was, “Have you given money to a charity in the past year?” Everyone answered “yes.” The second question was, “Have you given enough?”
“You don’t have to be Bill Gates to give money. You don’t have to work for the U.N. to do good.”
“Then, suddenly, everyone will answer no,” he said. The reasons: lack of trust, lack of time and lack of knowledge. As a result, Epic Foundation uses technology to fill those gaps. Mars describes Epic as a nonprofit with a startup mentality, and he completely funds it himself.
Last year, the organization made headlines for its app that aims to increase transparency in charitable giving. The Impact app shows users where their donations go — for example, how many children’s vaccines in East Africa your donation made possible — in an effort to connect nonprofits with more potential donors.
“What we do at Epic is more than VR,” Mars said. “We want to change the act of giving. The goal is to give tools to more people, and say it’s not hard. You don’t have to be Bill Gates to give money. You don’t have to work for the U.N. to do good.”