Can The Metaverse Fix Our Generosity Crisis?

A disturbing documentary titled Childhood 2.0 premiered in 2020. Told via eye-popping interviews with both parents and kids, it offers a firsthand view of how living online, especially via social media, has altered childhood forever.

Spoiler alert: It’s worse than you could imagine.

At one point, a teenage girl describes how courtship works today. The interviewer asks her how she knows she’s “dating” someone. “The guy says you’re hot, pretty much.” Then she adds, “The guy will add you on Snapchat, and you might say you like each other, but of course it’s over texts, it’s not face-to-face.”

The decline of face-to-face interactions is no trivial matter to society. It’s not just destroying romance. It’s obliterating our sense of community.

Years before Facebook was even a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, Political scientist Robert D. Putnam wrote Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. It surveys the decline of our civic participation, circa 1950, with the explosion of another innovation: TV. “Americans are right that the bonds of our communities have withered,” he writes. “And we are right to fear that this transformation has very real costs.”

One of those very real costs is a profound decline in philanthropy. 2019 marked the lowest giving level since Giving USA (GUSA) began detailing national philanthropic statistics four decades ago. Right now, fewer than half (49.6%) of Americans currently donate to charities.

Should this rate continue to fall, we can expect the following to occur in the coming years:

· Medical clinics will stop providing free healthcare screenings.

· Starved of funding, plays, operas, and symphonies will cease performing, robbing us of our cultural birthright.

· Homeless shelters will shutter, leaving the indigent to fend for themselves.

· Welfare services will terminate operations, exposing at-risk children to abuse.

· Scientific exploration will grind to a halt at many observatories and labs.

The specter of such a catastrophe is the subject of the new book I coauthored with philanthropic insiders Nathan Chappell and Brian Crimmins: The Generosity Crisis: The Case for Radical Connection to Solve Humanity’s Greatest Challenges (John Wiley & Sons, Inc.).

The book officially published today. Already cited in such journals as The Chronicle of Philanthropy, it makes the case that a nation of adults and kids living and working online 24/7 has lost the societal bonds that once enabled unprecedented American generosity.

A country of atomized citizens, mediating life via ubiquitous screens, we no longer know how to talk to each other, much less build and sustain communities. Of course, COVID-19 exacerbated this already dire situation. The pandemic forced the cancellations of countless galas and in-person fundraisers—the lifeblood of so many already beleaguered charities.

Okay. Enough doom and gloom. What if innovation could restore generosity? What if meeting online—specifically, in the metaverse—could create Radical Connection, our term connoting a deep and visceral affinity to organizations that can last a lifetime?

In the penultimate chapter of our book, we depict a future in which two 20-somethings—Simon and Claudine—don’t meet at an in-person charity event as they might have in previous generations. Instead, they connect in virtual reality.

Living on different sides of the U.S. and wearing haptic suits enabling them to sensorially experience the thrill of a black-tie gala, they connect online. It’s at a function celebrating hundreds of thousands of dollars raised to support a young female entrepreneur in Vietnam as part of Mastercard’s CARE Ignite Program.

Here’s an excerpt from The Generosity Crisis:

As he prepared to log off the call, Simon felt a tap on his shoulder. Turning, he saw Claudine’s avatar, a fellow donor he met on Zoom. For a second, he was speechless. She looked radiant in a long green gown; her brown locks curled down to her bare shoulders.

“Want to dance?” She asked as the band launched into In the Mood.

In real-life, Simon would have been too shy to say yes—the last time he tried dancing was during a disastrous prom date—but participating virtually felt safer. He grasped Claudine’s arm in his, entering the dance floor. Taking their place beside other couples, he and Claudine swayed to the music.

“You’ve done this before,” Claudine smiled.

“Not really. And never in cyberspace.”

“Me neither. But it’s sure fun.”

Simon soon forgot himself. Drinking in Claudine’s perfume and buoyed by the virtual orchestra, he twirled her around the dance floor. Smiling, she kept up with his footwork, lost in the moment. When the song ended, Simon surprised them both by dipping her backwards to applause.

“Aren’t you going to kiss me?” Claudine looked up at him.

Before the year ended, this encounter became fodder for wedding toasts to the happy bride and groom. In time, the couple would repeat its particulars to their three kids as the story of how mom and dad met and fell in love.


The point we make in the book is that Simon and Claudine’s romantic tale impacted their kids. It became part of their family’s mythology. Their children—then later, their children’s children—were so affected by this story, they embraced the giving tradition, making generosity part of their family’s identity, paying forward kindness. Like a ripple in a pond, such benevolence spread to others, influencing generations to come, even if centuries from now, no one could pinpoint precisely when such generous feelings arose.

Now, it might sound odd to suggest tomorrow’s tech could restore social cohesion, especially innovation originated by Mark Zuckerberg, a social media mogul notorious for degrading interpersonal relations. Example: Meta’s own internal research into its platform states: “32% of teen girls said that when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse.”

However, it is possible for technologies to act as a double-edged sword: doing harm and good. One such example comes from the organization in which coauthor Nathan Chappell serves as senior vice president: DonorSearch.

For years, companies assisting nonprofits with their fundraising efforts used two key strategies that may be described as the legacy model:

  1. Spray and Pray: Also called the “shotgun approach,” it typically involves mass mailing appeal letters to various zip codes for donations.
  2. Targeting Rich Prospects: Using wealth data, such as real estate holdings and SEC filings, to focus disproportionately on individuals with high-net worth.

DonorSearch pioneered a different approach: employing AI for identifying and targeting prospects based on factors that go far beyond net worth. The company analyzes donor behavior along several axes, discerning possible givers whose likelihood of making large donations far exceeds what one might suspect based on past behavior. For instance, it can aid in identifying those donors who may have a strong personal affinity toward your nonprofit—aka those people with a Radical Connection toward your cause.

Returning to Childhood 2.0 and so many discouraging—okay—depressing documentaries from the past few years (The Great Hack, Requiem for The American Dream, The Social Dilemma, etc.), it’s tempting to throw up our hands. To surrender to disillusionment. Even nihilism.

That’s the wrong way to view the difficulties of our times.

Instead, let’s use our challenges as mechanisms for growth. Or as Winston Churchill once remarked, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” In the spirit of innovation and goodwill to humankind this holiday season, let’s seize this challenging moment to tell a new story about philanthropy.

In this updated narrative, technology like the metaverse, along with other advancements, such as AI and big data, needn’t act as perpetual interpersonal barriers. Rather, with the right mentality, they can—and should—be harnessed to build stronger relationships. To support our human family.

Likewise, instead of succumbing to a fatalistic view of diminished prospects in our brave new age, let’s expand our thinking. Here are three ways the metaverse could empower altruistic organizations in the coming years:

● Lifesaving remote robotic surgeries could occur in disparate places, aiding those lacking access to healthcare opportunities.

● Special Olympics competitions could enable greater participation for those who might not otherwise be able to partake.

● Donors could watch—and aid—in efforts to build homes for the poor—all from the comfort of their living rooms.

These examples barely scratch the surface as to what’s possible when we think differently about generosity, abetted by technology. What matters most is that we reimagine what’s doable by opening our minds. For now, marrying the old and the new offers tomorrow’s nonprofits and charities a fighting chance at Radical Connection, the cure to our generosity crisis.

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