June 20, 2017

6 steps to implement a password manager at your nonprofit

Back in 2012, we implemented an organization-wide password manager here at NTEN, finally replacing our comically insecure “Shared Passwords” document, and the all-too-common practice of reusing the same password across a variety of different sites.

The idea of using a password manager had been on our radar for several months, but we had any number of excuses for why “now” wasn’t the right time:

  • We’ve never had issues with our “Shared Password” document to this point.
  • No hacker wants access to our accounts as a small nonprofit, so “admin” is a fine password to keep using everywhere.
  • There are a lot of reports saying password managers themselves can be insecure.
  • We already have too many systems, so I don’t want to force staff to learn yet another one.
  • We’re too busy right now, so maybe we can implement this next year.

While some of these ideas may have contained grains of truth (e.g. password managers aren’t a perfect defense), they all quickly fell flat once we’d experienced the time-saving and security benefits of using a password manager.

Five years later, it’s not exaggerating to say this change may be the most significant stress-reducing and time-saving policy I’ve ever put in place at NTEN since I started working here more than 10 years ago.

Step 1: Make the decision

If you’re not part of the leadership team, you’ll need to convince someone who is to help you champion this project. Figure out who that person will be, and make sure they’re on board.

Step 2: Pick the right password manager

Security experts can’t agree on which password manager is the “best,” so as a non-security expert I’m in no position to help you with that decision. That said, as long as you pick a tool that’s well established, well reviewed, and has a history of being transparent and quickly fixing any security holes, you can’t really make a bad choice.

The other thing that will help is figuring out any must-have features that may be unique to certain tools. Your budget may be another factor depending on your needs. Many of the most popular tools do offer free versions, but proper implementation for your nonprofit may require a paid Pro or Enterprise license.

Here are a few features I wouldn’t have known to look for initially, but have proved quite valuable over the years:

  • Ability for the administrator to:
    • set specific security policies to meet your org’s needs (e.g. password length, multi-factor authentication, remember me settings)
    • take over a user’s account and remove access to shared passwords when an employee leaves
    • reset a user’s master password if needed
  • Shared folders or security groups to easily manage who can access specific shared accounts
  • Ability for staff to link a personal account to the organization’s account to improve workflow, but without mixing personal data with the organization’s data (since once staff see the benefits at work, they’ll likely want to start managing their personal accounts the same way).

Step 3: Create an implementation plan

Once you’ve decided on a tool, the next step is to create a plan for launching this tool across your organization. This is where having the champion you found in Step 1 will be helpful.

You’ll need a detailed implementation plan that documents the on-boarding process for users, organization-specific policies for how to use the tool, a migration plan to bring all your existing accounts into the tool, and finally, a plan to purge all your old, insecure passwords and replace them with secure, unique passwords.

Testing out the tool yourself is a great help in creating this plan. While you should make it as detailed and complete as possible, keep in mind that it’s a first draft and will almost certainly require substantial revisions after the next step.

Step 4: Do a trial implementation with a small team

There’s no quicker way to sour your co-workers on a new system than a poorly delivered implementation. If a new tool adds to their stress or workload, as soon as you turn your back, they’re going to stop using it and go back to what they know.

To avoid this potential landmine during NTEN’s implementation, I chose a small group of trusted staff members to help test out my plan prior to the big launch. This exercise helped me identify and fix several incomplete or rocky patches in my plan. Perhaps more importantly, it also created a committed group of converted staff that were able to help answer questions and train other staff later.

Step 5: Launch it to the whole organization

Now that you have your revised and improved plan in place, along with a small team of staff eager to see this new tool implemented, you’re ready for the official launch. There are sure to still be unanticipated bumps in the road, but as long as you have the right people on board and have carved out the time to make sure everyone is trained effectively, your coworkers should quickly start seeing the benefits of the new tool.

This is where all the work you’ve done is rewarded, often with glowing smiles and relieved sighs emanating across the office as users realize the burden of remembering countless passwords has been lifted, and that their accounts are actually going to be significantly more secure.

Step 6: Provide continued training and improvement

Bask in the joy of accomplishment for a few minutes, but then get back to work. While it may seem like everything is safe, easy, and wonderful after implementation, it’s critical you don’t become indifferent to the risks that still exist. In reality your users are all going to have different levels of adoption, and your organization is only as safe as your least secure user.

To combat this, most password management services have tools you can use to monitor how secure each user’s account is (e.g. master password strength, reused passwords, multi-factor authentication usage), so you can use those to identify and follow up with any users who seem to be falling behind the curve.

You’ll also need to keep your policies up to date to match new needs or discovered security risks, and offer routine refresher trainings to staff. For example, I’m pondering removing the mandatory password change requirement from our policy and replacing it with mandatory multi-factor authentication. And don’t forget to keep staff trained about related risks like phishing and baiting.

Conclusion

If you’ve read this far, but still haven’t made the decision to implement a password management system for your organization, please make that decision now.

Seriously though, whenever I read a “password best practices” type of article and their first piece of advice isn’t to use a password manager (which surprisingly is the majority of them), I cringe a little for anyone who’s still attempting to follow all those oft-repeated rules on their own (such as using a passphrase, changing your passwords every 30/60/90 days, or using a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols).

Those rules all still make sense of course, but in 2017—when we all have hundreds of different accounts across the internet—it’s impossible for any mere mortal to actually follow all those rules to the letter without a password manager.

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Karl Hedstrom
Karl joined the NTEN team in 2006 as an AmeriCorps CTC VISTA Volunteer, and then stayed on after accepting a position as NTEN's Data and Systems Manager. After working remotely from Chicago for 3 years, he moved to Seattle in 2011 and took on a more strategic role as IT Director. Before NTEN, Karl served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Niger, West Africa. His focus was on community development, but he also worked in several other fields including AIDS awareness, environmental education, and small income generation. This experience allowed him to see first hand the huge impact technology can have in the nonprofit and development fields. Karl graduated from Pomona College in 2002 with a BA in Physics, and this technical background nicely complements his development experience in his role at NTEN. Outside of work, Karl keeps himself occupied with a variety of intramural sports leagues and video games, but also jumps at any chance to escape into the wilderness with his wife, two sons, and yellow lab.