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By Nahla Davies
Sun | Jan 21, 2024 | 6:47 AM PST

Battling cybersecurity threats can often feel like an uphill struggle. Nonprofits often juggle tight budgets and unique operational demands, making it even more difficult to keep sensitive information safe—but here's the thing: you don't need a fortune to build a strong defense against the possible cyber threats out there.

Let's take a closer look at some key cybersecurity strategies for nonprofits to consider. We'll also touch upon a couple of high-profile attacks that will serve as cautionary tales. The key here is implementing smart, affordable cybersecurity strategies that work best for nonprofits.

Remember, sometimes a little common sense goes a lot further than the fanciest encryption out there. Let's break it down and help you keep your data off the darknet and under lock and key.

Understanding the cybersecurity landscape for nonprofits

Nonprofits, by their very nature, often handle all kinds of sensitive information that range from donor details to beneficiary data. However, the myth that nonprofits are less likely to be targeted by cybercriminals is just that—a myth.

In reality, their perceived lower level of security makes them attractive targets to malicious actors. Because of this, it's crucial to understand the types of threats nonprofits face.

Phishing attacks, for instance, are extremely common: these are deceptive emails or messages designed to steal data. Ransomware is another significant threat, where attackers encrypt an organization's data and demand payment for its release.

Additionally, nonprofits must be aware of the risks posed by inadequate security in third-party services they use, such as fundraising platforms and email services.

The unique cybersecurity challenges for nonprofits

As mentioned, nonprofits often handle sensitive information like donor and beneficiary details and may manage substantial funds, becoming prime targets for cybercriminals.

With typically smaller teams and budgets, these organizations face unique cybersecurity challenges.

Financial risks and consequences

Various cyberattacks on nonprofits can lead to direct financial losses through stolen funds or ransom demands. The costs of recovering from such incidents, especially for smaller organizations without cyber insurance, can be devastating.

These losses are not just monetary; the time and resources diverted to deal with the aftermath of an attack can significantly hamper operational efficiency.

Reputational damage

For nonprofits, reputation is everything, so a breach that compromises donor or beneficiary personal information can irreparably damage the trust and confidence placed in the organization.

A possible breach can lead to a decline in support from donors and volunteers that can critically impact the nonprofit's ability to achieve its mission.

Legal and compliance repercussions

Nonprofits must also adhere to the same legal and compliance standards as for-profits regarding data protection.

Failure to comply can lead to legal consequences, including fines and further reputational harm, putting the organization's future at risk.

Key low-cost cybersecurity strategies

Given these increasing risks, nonprofits need effective, budget-friendly cybersecurity measures. Some of the most effective ones you can implement include:

Employing employee training and awareness

With human error often being the weakest link in any company’s operations, it's vital for nonprofits to educate their staff and volunteers, which includes safe internet practices and recognizing potential threats that exist.

Utilizing free online resources, such as YouTube tutorials, and conducting internal training sessions can significantly enhance cybersecurity awareness at little to no cost.

Leveraging vendor donation programs

Many tech companies offer discounted or donated products to nonprofits to help them stay safe and secure.

For instance, Microsoft provides up to 10 free licenses of Microsoft 365 Business Premium to qualifying nonprofits, which include advanced cybersecurity features. These programs are an excellent way for nonprofits to access high-quality cybersecurity tools without straining their budgets.

Likewise, organizations should strive to avoid vendor lock-in, especially when it comes to less relevant parts of the business, such as excess Kubernetes cluster, PPC ads, or anything you can do without. It turns out that a strategy aimed at cost-effectiveness can actually afford to be more expensive in some areas, provided savings are made in others.

Choosing the right technology partners

Selecting technology partners who understand the unique security challenges that nonprofits can face is crucial. These partners should offer more than just technical support; they should provide solutions that align with the nonprofit's mission and budgetary constraints.

It's also important to be picky when it comes to software purchases since things like using invoice financing platforms with weak security can override any internal security efforts you've already undertaken. For example, in one of the most notable cases of a cyberattack on a nonproft, $650,000 was stolen from One Treasure Island, and the attack vector used was a third-party bookkeeping solution.

Having basic cyber hygiene

Advanced technology is important, but basics like regular data backups, software updates, strong password policies, and multi-factor authentication are fundamental.

These basic steps of upholding basic cyber hygiene are often low-cost or free and form the first line of defense against cyber threats.

Implementing cost-effective cybersecurity tools

There are numerous affordable or even free tools available to nonprofits to help them enhance their overall cyber hygiene.

For instance, hardware- or software-based firewalls can monitor incoming and outgoing network traffic and block suspicious activity. Open-source tools can also be valuable; for example, tools like KeePass for password management or ClamAV for antivirus protection are free and widely respected.

Likewise, instead of going with more mainstream solutions, nonprofits can also use PDF SDKs for document security, as such a solution offers enhanced data protection, customized access controls, cost savings through reduced dependency on multiple kinds of software, and the flexibility to tailor features to their specific needs.

Cloud services offer another avenue for cost-effective cybersecurity solutions since providers often include security measures in their service offerings. However, it's important to thoroughly vet these providers and understand the shared responsibility model of cloud security. While the provider secures the infrastructure, the nonprofit is responsible for securing its data within that infrastructure.

Nonprofits should also consider investing in a virtual private network, also known as a VPN. A VPN can encrypt internet traffic, providing an additional layer of security, especially for remote workers or when using public Wi-Fi networks.

Responding to and recovering from cyber incidents

Even with strong preventive measures, it's essential to have a plan for responding to cybersecurity incidents that should include steps for identifying and containing the breach, eradicating the threat, recovering data, and notifying affected parties. After all, quick and efficient responses can help minimize the impact of a breach.

Training staff in basic incident response can also be highly beneficial for organizations; they should know whom to contact and what steps to follow if they suspect a cybersecurity incident. Furthermore, regular drills or simulations of cyber-attacks can prepare the team for real-world scenarios.

Post-incident analysis is equally important since understanding how a breach occurred and learning from it can prevent future incidents. The analysis should be thorough, covering all aspects of the incident, from the initial breach to their final recovery.

Building a strong cybersecurity foundation

A strong cybersecurity strategy doesn't necessarily require a hefty investment; it starts with educating staff and volunteers about basic cybersecurity hygiene. Employing simple best practices like using strong, unique passwords for each account, enabling two-factor authentication, and recognizing phishing attempts can significantly bolster an organization's defense.

Next, it's vital to ensure that all of your organization's systems and software are properly up to date. Software updates often include patches for security vulnerabilities that, if left unaddressed, could be exploited by cybercriminals. Nonprofits should also utilize antivirus and anti-malware software to provide an additional layer of protection against threats.

Another cornerstone of any robust cybersecurity strategy is having regular data backups and maintaining them properly. In the event of a data breach or ransomware attack, having up-to-date backups can be the difference between a minor setback and a catastrophic loss of data. These backups should be stored securely, ideally in a location separate from the primary data.

Safeguard your nonprofit's mission

Nonprofits often face several significant challenges when it comes to cyber threats, such as protecting sensitive information and maintaining the trust of their supporters, all within the constraints of limited resources. The risks they face include financial loss, damage to reputation, and legal complications—however, enhancing cybersecurity doesn't necessarily require a large budget.

The approach should be practical: provide regular cybersecurity training to staff and volunteers, take advantage of discounted technology offerings from vendors, choose IT partners who understand the nonprofit sector, and focus on basic security measures like regular data backups and strong password policies.

Remember, cybersecurity for nonprofits isn't some kind of one-time effort; it's a continuous process that requires meticulous attention and adaptation. With these key strategies in place, nonprofits can protect themselves from cyber threats and continue to operate safely and effectively by adopting the right strategies and resources.