About a week ago I went to a Net Tuesday event that featured Second Life, a virtual world that the residents build, which creates… well…a second life. There were about 20 people in the room, and about 50 or 60 avatars (virtual people) crowded around a stage, making it a “mixed reality” event. The room had a ton of equipment, cameras, lights, laptops, speakers, etc., and the speakers in real life talked into a microphone and looked at a camera so the folks in Second Life could watch the video feed of the speakers.
A number of people, both real and “in world”, spoke about how they use SL successfully for advocacy and fundraising. Groups such as the Library Alliance and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society discussed how they built tools for their constituents, raised money, and successfully marshalled people’s volunteer efforts.
As I watched that crowd of swaying avatars on stage, I couldn’t help but feel like a dinosaur. I was a little scared of this medium, in that it seemed so foreign to me and would require so much work to get a firm grasp of. I know SL is experiencing tremendous amounts of growth right now, and the people immersed seemed so comfortable flying around (literally) and building worlds and friendships that I had to ask myself “who are these people and where do they find the time to spend in Second Life?”. These same questions, mind you, are the same ones I asked about bloggers two years ago. Although blogging may have been a niche activity then, it’s not now. I guess I just reacted how lots of people do to new ideas they can’t wrap their head around. Will SL become the new blogging, a medium which is cheap or free and any NGO would be foolhardy to ignore as a means of raising awareness or money?
Jeska Linden from Linden Labs (the makers of SL) and Randall Moss of the American Cancer Society gave an excellent presentation at the Net Squared conference.The American Cancer Society seems to be the trailblazer in this SL. My understanding is that they just received a check in the mail for $2,500 from some folks active in SL. They hadn’t heard of it, so they poked around and found out that people were using the ACS logo and other materials without authorization and raising money. This was initially pretty alarming until folks (I’m guessing Randall Moss, he seems to be the main ACS-SL facilitator) started poking around and saw the potential. Instead of recoiling in fear, they began to accept it and treat this virtual world as they do the real one: a place full of advocates/donors and potential advocates/donors. They started a virtual Walk For Life, and raised $6,500. This year their walk is happening this weekend, and they’ve already raised $25,000, which means they’re basically tripling their money every year. That’s real money, and real growth, and there’s no reason to expect it to end anytime soon with SL itself experiencing similarly crazy growth.
Could it translate to any other NGOs? Maybe, maybe not. Certainly every NGO needs to find passionate advocates with the spare time, energy and heart to spread the word and SL seems like a great place to link up with such folks. And I don’t know too many orgs that couldn’t use an extra $25k.
ACS has a number of structural advantages over other orgs. Their cause touches everyone. 1 in 4 of us gets cancer, so unless you’re lucky or lonely, you know someone who has or will get it. That will make you care. Also, I bet that there are plenty of cancer patients that cannot leave the house as much as they would like who could really thrive in Second Life. These folks would be natural advocates, and their personal story would be really compelling. Lastly, ACS is huge and has tons of money. That allows them to hire really smart people like David and Randall and give them the time and money to take risks. It’s obviously paying off.
But as Jeska says, it’s not for everyone (excellent interview with her here). Comparing Interplast to ACS, our clients (poor children in developing countries) generally don’t have electricity, much less broadband. They’re not on SL spreading the Interplast story. And congenital birth defects and injuries are not as widespread as cancer. Maybe 1 in 700 kids is born with a cleft, and 1 in 200 girls in the global south gets a disabling burn (compared with 1 in 2000 in industrialized countries). That’s not 1 in 4, so it’s less people that have been indirectly affected. Lastly, limited resources. It always comes back to ROI, and its harder to find time to just walking around a virtual world talking to people if you’re in a smaller shop where everyone has a bigger comparative chunk of organizational responsibility.
But even with all this in mind, I wonder about the possibilities. Susan Tenby is a driving force behind the Tech Soup / Second Life interaction, and she wants to show everyone how successful this can be. There is clearly a huge potential benefit for NGOs. I guess what I would need to take the plunge is some sort of roadmap for how NGOs, large and small, can find supporters in a big virtual world, with time estimates clearly stated. I know Susan’s working on this, and maybe others are as well. Like usual, I need less convincing than my boss, who needs less convincing than her boss. Maybe I can convince a certain to-be house guest of mine to give me a little run through while we’re hanging out…
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