Longing for working phones and computers

Longing for working phones and computers
October 4, 2011 Betsy Stone

Eighth in a series

We all know how frustrating it is when a computer or mobile phone crashes.  We could never have imagined the longing we would feel for basic technology.  How do you run an agency without working phones and computers?

River City Food Bank was forced to manage without phone lines for nearly six months. And every hour counted when we were trying to restore operations, keep the permit process moving, field calls from interested donors and media, and maintain normal communications with volunteers, funders and agencies who refer clients.

Despite repeated calls to the telephone service provider, and even a plea to KCRA’s Call 3 Problem Solvers, nothing seemed to work when it came to getting phone lines installed.  It wasn’t a proud moment for us, hamstrung by a three-year contract with a company that was swallowed up by a merger.  Let’s just say that company won’t be getting a recommendation from us.

While the phone lines were down, we had to rely on an awkward system to receive and respond to inquiries.  Not surprisingly, Eileen’s mobile phone rang “off the hook.”  Her phone was the only way to reach a live person.  3Fold Communications routed voice calls to an electronic recording system that attempted to turn messages into texts, often with hysterical results.  Unfortunately, we had no computers with speakers, so we weren’t able to listen to recordings. That meant interpreting the slaughtered text messages as best we could. Those were very long months before we were able to restore the most rudimentary of phone services.

In the days after the fire, we also kept our fingers crossed about another vital resource: our donor and financial database.  Although we had been assured that it was appropriately backed up, no one relaxed until we received confirmation that it was safe.

Our computers and server were nothing fancy before the fire, but we depended on them to keep client records. Organizations that fund us require solid documentation to demonstrate our accountability in handling the funds they donate or foods they distribute through RCFB.

Western Health Advantage relieved us of a huge burden when they stepped forward with an offer of seven surplus Dell computers.  Mike Libby of Downey Brand, the firm’s IT leader, stepped forward with an offer of a Dell server and a Microsoft operating system and license, which he then configured.

Until we had a roof over our heads, however, it fell to volunteers to work for hundreds of hours to enter data from our paper forms into our client database – a tedious job if there ever was one!

After moving to donated temporary space in the Heller Pacific building on Capitol Avenue, we had the semblance of a working office (minus ringing phones):  a folding six foot table as Eileen’s desk, several computer work stations, and a server.

Sending and receiving emails was still an exercise in frustration.  A law firm located on the floor below the borrowed office allowed access to its secure wifi connection.  Unfortunately, the barrier of the floor tended to interrupt the signal every 30 minutes or so, usually in the middle of an email or online activity.  To complicate matters, the password changed daily.

Our last bit of critical technology was the website.  The website provided information to clients about our hours and locations (and limitations on our service since we were no longer able to provide housing assistance).  It also was a constant source for people who wanted to know what type of food or volunteer assistance we needed.  Lacking administrative access and tools to be able to maintain the content on the website, 3Fold Communications supported the mission by keeping the website up-to-date.

Before the fire, we might have complained about our computers and phones out of irritation. After the fire, we appreciate as never before what vital infrastructure they are to our mission of feeding the hungry in Sacramento.

Next: Tough strategic choices

Posted by @philanthrophile, also known as Betsy Stone

Tip:  If you’d like to keep up on the latest news about area hunger, RCFB’s efforts to rebuild or major events like Empty Bowls, subscribe to the e-newsletter by signing up on the website.  Look for the email signup field, “Join our secure email list.”