Get a (Second) Life!
Working to change the real world by hanging out in a virtual one.
That’s pretty much how Susan Tenby sums up nonprofits’ use of the 3-D, online, virtual world known as Second Life. Tenby is senior manager of online community development for San Francisco-based nonprofit technology information provider TechSoup.org
Tenby, also known as her Second Life avatar Glitteractica Cookie, says SL can be an extremely valuable tool for nonprofits in terms of collaboration and learning.
Launched by the San Francisco-based software company Linden Lab, SL is a place where nonprofits can raise awareness and dollars and reach new audiences while having a good time. There are more than 10 million members and 55,000 concurrent users online in SL at any given time, Tenby says, adding that about 400 nonprofit organizations are registered there.
“It allows for teaching in a new way and makes new technologies seem less daunting,” she explains.
SL is a world run and inhabited by avatars (characters with funny, futuristic-sounding names created by users) that can buy property, interact with each other, buy and sell products, and even have some extra-special superpowers. They can fly and change forms, and the world can be customized to support an avatar’s needs.
It also is a place where the impossible can occur. For example, Tenby refers to a group using SL to raise awareness about schizophrenia.
“There is a simulation where a person can put on a virtual backpack and can experience what it’s like to have schizophrenia,” Tenby says. “This allows you to walk in their shoes. It’s a new way of teaching.”
There’s also a virtual Guantanamo Bay project — the result of a partnership among Seton Hall University’s School of Law, the MacArthur Foundation and the Bay Area Video Coalition — where an avatar can put on an orange suit and feel “what it’s like inside prison.”
It’s also a great place to network, says Jessica Dally, help desk technician for the Seattle-based Community Voice Mail, which provides free, 24-hour nationwide voice mail to people in crisis.
“It’s another way to get our word out to other agencies,” Dally says, adding that although CVM didn’t set out to use SL to fundraise, sometimes the networking results in donations.
“Someone who saw us in Second Life realized what we do, got interested enough, and visited our Web site and made a donation,” she says.
Among the nonprofits with a SL presence, perhaps the most successful in terms of fundraising is the American Cancer Society. Over the last four years, ACS has raised more than $275,000 from its virtual Relay For Life events, according to Randal Moss, director of ACS’ Futuring and Innovation Center. Donations have steadily increased — from $5,000 the first year to $111,000 (as of June 11), and the virtual walkathon for 2008 isn’t until July 20. The society also has raised $4,000 for its virtual Making Strides Against Breast Cancer campaign.
Moss says ACS also uses SL to educate and engage the community, hosting virtual meetings for cancer survivors where up to 30 avatars attend twice a week.
“It is a nonprofit’s responsibility to try and have a presence here,” Moss says. “For some segments of the population, SL is their real world, and this is your only way to reach them.”
He adds that nonprofits really don’t lose anything by tapping into virtual environments.
“It’s cost-neutral,” Moss says. “It’s important for people to explore these communities and engage.”
Tips to try
TechSoup’s Tenby offers these tips for nonprofits interested in journeying into SL and other virtual worlds.
1. Don’t register with the goal of raising money right off the bat. Get to know the world — and the people who populate it — first. “Be mindful of the belligerent learning curve,” she warns.
2. Find a Second Life mentor, and visit the TechSoup space on Second Life. TechSoup created a virtual office in Second Life, where nonprofits can meet and share ideas.
She also encourages newcomers to attend TechSoup’s weekly virtual meetings each Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 a.m. PST. “A kind mentor can help show you the ropes,” she says. “You don’t have to be a techie to succeed — you just need an imagination.”
3. Don’t buy everything. Once you get inside, you’ll be faced with plenty of offers to buy this and that. “Sign up for the free account,” Tenby says. “There is plenty of free stuff out there.”
4. Don’t be put off by the snide remarks by those who just don’t get it. Some people are wary of virtual worlds and question them because they originated as places for entertainment. Even “The Daily Show” host Jon Stewart took a jab at Tenby and SL after she testified to Congress about the virtual world and its importance.
“It’s very easily mocked,” Tenby says. “People are afraid of it.”
Tenby compares it to Games for Change, which provides support, visibility and shared resources to individuals and organizations using digital games for social change.
“There are games like Grand Theft Auto and others where you … kill and steal,” she says. “Why not games for social change?”
5. Be ready to put in your time. Tenby urges users to spend one to two hours per week getting to know the virtual world. “Don’t just think you can slap a sign on a wall [in SL] and think you have a presence there,” Tenby says. “Invest time. You must be there to be there.” FS
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