Cisco and Community Voice Mail Create a Lifeline for People In Need: Win 2004 WSA Award
April 5, 2004
By Terry Timm Moos, News@Cisco
It's that time of year when glamorous award shows fill the airwaves, where acceptance speeches sometimes get tearful, and winners go home with the gold they've dreamed of.
And every once in awhile, entire communities turn out to be the real winners.
That's exactly the case with Community Voice Mail (CVM) and Cisco Systems, who received the prestigious 2004 Industry Achievement Award for "Outstanding Contribution to the Community" from the Washington Software Association (WSA), Washington state's oldest and largest technology association. CVM's free voicemail program greatly enhance people's prospects for securing jobs, housing, and regaining stability by providing free voice mail.
Community Voice Mail's National Office, headquartered in Seattle, Wash., is working with Cisco Systems to strengthen the communications technology that drives the voice mail for thousands of homeless individuals nationwide. This year, CVM's partnership with Cisco Systems to upgrade its voice mail technology, increase impact and reduce costs was singled out by the WSA for the award.
Engaging employees in a growing effort
Kevin Chestnut, General Manager of Cisco Systems' Enterprise Communications Software Business Unit in Seattle, has literally watched Community Voice Mail grow up - from its launch in 1992 with donated voice mail equipment - to CVM's current service presence of nearly 35 sites in 20 states around the country.
It's been an interesting journey. What started as a local service - to provide voice mail access to people in need - has evolved into an organization with far-reaching impact, not only for the people who use CVM services, but also for the people who donate their time and energy to make the program a success.
"We were familiar with Community Voice Mail from its early days, when Active Voice (a company acquired by Cisco Systems) was first involved," explained Chestnut. It made perfect sense for the Cisco Systems team to stay involved, re-invest in the organization, and enhance the technology to meet CVM's growing needs. "It was like a homecoming for all of us in the Seattle office to work with CVM," he said.
"CVM is an ideal fit with the mission of Cisco Systems to engage employees within communities." said Chestnut. Engaging employees is something of an understatement when it comes to CVM. Kevin and his colleagues volunteer their time and technical expertise on CVM projects, such as product development, technical training, and customization. In addition, the CVM organization benefits from direct grants of funds, Cisco equipment, and facilities from the Cisco Foundation.
The CVM National Office launches Community Voice Mail in new communities, leads advocacy and public policy efforts, incorporates innovations in technology, and supports all existing CVM programs. According to Jennifer Brandon, Executive Director of the CVM National Office, "Cisco Systems has supported our need for a home by providing much-needed office space for us within their facilities. In fact, we are just a couple of floors away from Kevin and his team."
Cisco Unity VoIP brings added features to CVM
Community Voice Mail is moving its current system to the Cisco Unity Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) communications technology, to better provide 24-hour accessible voice mail access to people in crisis and transition. A big element of the partnership is to increase the impact and reduce costs for CVM, while adding new features and functionality.
"What we are doing now is taking the Cisco Unity product solution to the next level for Community Voice Mail," said Chestnut. "We are looking closely at what the organization needs as it expands services to more sites. It's been a collaborative effort with Jennifer and her staff," he continued. "We looked at what worked, what needed improvement, and tested the system in field trials, to come up with the key features that will benefit CVM the most as they go forward."
"We are so pleased with the strong support we get from the Cisco business unit," added Patricia Bonnell, Director of Development & Communications for CVM. "By working together, we have been able to create special prompts, customize reporting, and we can scale to meet the needs of our agencies," she said. Two pilot programs launched in San Jose, Calif., and Everett, Wash., used the custom features, and the roll-out of a second version will come in May, 2004.
Part of the long-range plan is to centralize the voice mail system on a regional basis, which will cut down on support costs and maintenance for the individual CVM organizations around the country. Jennifer Brandon looks forward to eliminating the maintenance issues at the local level. "People who are in our programs and love being out in the community can then concentrate on their core strengths of being field agents and case workers," she said.
Added Patricia Bonnell, "With phone-based and Web-based enrollment, and improved ways to access data, we will also benefit." Among the new features are Spanish language prompts.
Creating a model for other non-profits
By using a 'best practices' approach, Kevin Chestnut and the other Cisco employees have created a model for voluntarism that can be used with other non-profit organizations to achieve greater efficiency and cost savings. "The power of Cisco Systems in this area is phenomenal - not only from a position of funding, technology resources and training, but also in knowledge transfer," said Chestnut.
People have high praise for their experiences with CVM and Cisco Systems.
"I have been offered a level of support and understanding far beyond my expectations. The team has a comprehension of the needs and obstacles encountered by our end users (people with economic realities that make it otherwise impossible to have basic telecommunications) and case managers at partnering agencies (the folks in the trenches that enroll and follow through with voicemail clients at homeless shelters, job training programs, medical and social service providers) that many people in the non-profit world don't understand."Betsy Arroyo, Program Manager
San Jose CVM
"Community Voice Mail is an indispensable tool for our clients. Everyone understands the importance of having reliable and confidential telecommunications as a tool for finding a job or housing. But for my clients, most of whom live in shelters or on the streets, Community Voice Mail also gives them a sense of normalcy that is at least as valuable. Just to be able to give their phone number to an old friend or family member is very empowering to someone who lives in her car or sleeps on a cot at the armory."Alison Dougerty, Case Manager
Santa Clara Unified School District Adult Education
Community Voice Mail relies entirely on grants and individual donations to fund its national programs. Patricia Bonnell says, "What we do at CVM is amazing. But we couldn't do it without help from Cisco Systems."
Jennifer Brandon sums it up this way. "The real key is that Cisco gets it," she said. "They understand the importance of what we do, and about the dignity and support we provide for people. They are truly flexible and supportive."
At Cisco Systems, "unity" means much more than a product group. It's a mindset.
The WSA Outstanding Contribution to the Community Award goes to the company that has demonstrated a philanthropic commitment of time, energy and resources to bettering the community - which means participation, promotion or donation of time, expertise, services, and/or products to a civic cause or local philanthropy. For more information, go to www.wsa.org.
Terry Timm Moos is a freelance writer located in Seattle, WA.