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Christoph Trappe arrived in Iowa as a German high school exchange student, was recruited by legendary coach Hayden Fry and now his efforts—from a first-of-its-kind volunteering app to augmented reality—have made The United Way of East Central Iowa one of the nation’s most forward thinking nonprofits.
Where are you originally from and how did you end up in The Corridor?
I was born in Germany and grew up in Dusseldorf. I lived there until age 15 and came to Iowa City in 1995 as a foreign exchange student at Iowa City West High School. In 1996, Iowa Coach Hayden Fry offered me a football scholarship and I attended the university from 1997 to 2001. [How does a guy from Dusseldorf learn to play American football? Read more of that story here.)
Once I graduated from the University of Iowa, I took a newspaper reporting job at the Muscatine Journal and reported on public safety issues for this Lee Enterprises newspaper. I later worked for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, then moved north to The Gazette in Cedar Rapids and have lived in the Cedar Rapids metro area since 2003—I now live in Marion.
You currently work as the Vice President of Communications and Innovation at United Way of East Central Iowa, what do you do there?
My job at United Way focuses around communication. How do we tell United Way’s stories all the time through all the different channels that people use? How do we stay relevant while building lasting relationships? I think that can be accomplished by telling authentic stories.
The innovation part of the job focuses on adjusting to this new way of marketing. We try to train staff effectively to recognize and then tell authentic stories.
It also includes making use of the latest technologies. We don’t try to chase the latest new, shiny object but make use of technologies that work for us, help us tell better stories and help us improve the community.
Can you tell us more about the Volunteering App you built and how it has been received?
Karl Becker, a local software developer, and I first met when I ran Eastern Iowa News, a local news startup a few years ago. We stayed in touch through the years and brainstormed what kind of app would make the most sense for United Way. We ended up on the idea of a volunteer app.
Karl developed the app from scratch and we use data that community partners submit. A person can place his location on the map and find nearby volunteer opportunities. The app , which we believed to be the first of its kind in the United States, has been a hit and other United Ways across the country have started to release their own versions. The app was even mentioned in a Congressional Budget Justification report for making “volunteer opportunities more accessible!”
Tell us about other projects you have in the works, or are particularly proud of?
The communications team—Event Planner Erica Bergfeld, Multimedia Designer Justin Fletcher, Content Development Specialist Caitlin Wiedenheft and myself—is always looking for new and improved ways and techniques to share our stories. One recent and new way of sharing stories is the use of augmented reality, which allows us to make multimedia content available through print pieces. Jen Neumann, a partner at de Novo Alternative Marketing in Cedar Rapids, first brought this idea to my attention and the team then executed this new technology in a print brochure.
Augmented reality, in a nutshell: People can access the multimedia content (videos and audio, for example) by downloading the Layar app and hovering their phones over the print piece. The video and audio pieces play right there “inside” the printed piece, via the app.
We also ran our first ever virtual volunteer fair in April 2013 and were able to recruit volunteers this way while also raising the public’s awareness of volunteering.
I’m also proud to say that we were recognized with the Content Management Association’s 2013 WordPress Spotlight Award for our implementation of topical homepages. Each month [through the front of our homepage] we share information that we believe is most relevant for that month (examples).
We also tested a fresh produce drive concept at a farmers’ market in 2012. We collected 1,300 pounds of fresh produce that was passed on to hungry families and tested several techniques for future markets. We then passed those techniques to partners who continued running fresh produce drives.
In April 2013, we brought 220 people representing more than 100 organizations together to look into how we can address Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). We brought in national speakers and connected the community with relevant information on the topic. The event was later rebroadcast in its entirety on KCRG 9.2.
We also constantly create high-quality video content that we share through digital, as well as sometimes traditional channels.
As of late July 2013, we have 236 YouTube videos with more than 20,000 views. Not very many nonprofits produce the kind of videos that we produce.
Tell us more about the importance of storytelling and how it has played into your work.
We do know that people react to and connect more when they hear authentic stories. That’s what we are trying to do here at United Way in Cedar Rapids. We try to share as many meaningful stories as possible. Sometimes those stories are very short. We call that snackable content. Sometimes they are longer and explain more of an issue.
We also know that content collection, editing and distribution can take time. So we are trying to use a concept called Create Once Publish Everywhere.
Basically, all the content that we produce goes on the website first, from there we massage it for the different audiences of other channels. For example, Facebook users want to connect very differently than people reading an editorial in the newspaper. We’ve found that this is the most efficient way to distribute our content to the relevant audiences.
The word innovation is not often associated with nonprofit organizations. What advice do you have for other nonprofit professionals who wish to be more innovative?
I think many nonprofit professionals are very innovative. Nonprofits adjust to problems and look for new solutions.
Don’t be afraid to try new things. Measure what works. Do more of that. Do less of what doesn’t.