Windmill Hill City Farm is a local organisation embedded in the local community. It’s located in a region that is a mix of areas of high deprivation and pockets of relative affluence. The organisation comprises an open farm and gardens, a cafe, and a community centre that incorporates a day-care nursery. We also run a variety of health and social care projects.
The overheads of our operation are substantial. It’s free to come to our farm, and although we encourage people to donate, it would make little difference financially if we doubled our visitor numbers. Our main income is from the day-care nursery, along with earned income from the cafe and room hire, project work, and contracts (such as for our work with people with mental health issues).
The issues we faced
It’s a constant battle to find money for core costs, so there is little money available for IT. We couldn’t fundraise for it – it’s not sexy. Nobody donates money for IT just as nobody donates money for toilet rolls. So we just have to squeeze money from somewhere if we can.
Four years ago, we had 20 PCs. The newest was about four years old then. These were a nightmare to support as they all had different software on them.
The actions we took
With some effort we were able to track down an IT systems analyst willing to spend a few days on a voluntary basis looking at our infrastructure. We found him through the personal networks of the staff – always a good, if somewhat overlooked, source of resources. A couple of hours invested in a conversation about what we could expect managed expectations on both sides. This is additionally important when dealing with a ‘friend of a friend’.
The volunteer analyst recommended a way forward that demanded new software for a server that was donated to us. To afford that, we joined Technology Trust’s tt-exchange programme, which could provide us with donated Microsoft software at vastly reduced rates.
The three days of work that the volunteer put in were some of the best three days we ever had. Taking a holistic view of our requirements, and with no vested interest in selling us new kit, he came up with a means of upgrading the system without needing to change 90% of our existing equipment.
All our old PC machines were set up to run remotely off the server using Windows Remote Desktop. This means that all the computing work is done by the server and there is one version of software that is run by everyone. Now all the PCs use the same software, making maintenance far easier, and eliminating compatibility issues between varying ages of software. It was a massive improvement and extended the life of the old PCs so that we could replace them bit-by-bit as resources allowed.
One thing to remember with technology is that it’s not just about ‘kit.’ The costs are in training, implementation, and adapting the non-IT systems to work around the technology. It took some time and coaching to persuade a number of staff that newer software would make their lives easier. One or two clung to using the old local software for a while. There’s no easy way around that, it just takes lots of communication.
The volunteer analyst proved to be worth his weight in gold and the donated software provided by Microsoft through the tt-exchange programme made the new solution possible. Without those two elements, we would be wasting money either through staff stuck with broken, aging machines running out-of-date software, costly IT support patching up a defunct system, and constant problems with virus attacks, compatibility issues and obsolescence.
We would recommend other charities look for similar donations from the scheme.