By Adela Uchida | Spring 2023
The client: the Lansing Area AIDS Network
The problem: a failing server, old and mismatched computers, and inadequate cyber security
The funder: the Michigan Health Endowment Fund
The problem solvers: the Michigan Nonprofit Association Tech team
The Lansing Area AIDS Network serves people living with HIV and AIDS in the mid-Michigan area and has for decades, provided invaluable services to a vulnerable population. Like many nonprofits in March of 2020, the employees had to scramble to work remotely at the onset of the COVID pandemic. The demands of work-from-home strained what was already an old server and out-of-date technology.
In 2021, new leadership took control of the organization and decided something needed to be done about their computers. “I started with the agency a year and a half ago and quickly realized we needed to make some upgrades,” said LAAN executive director Kristina Schmidgall. “Previously, our tech was done by our accountant. So, he was doing those roles and then he retired in January.”
LAAN applied for a grant from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, which reached out to the Michigan Nonprofit Association Tech team. They contract with the endowment every year to upgrade systems and provide a help desk with an 800 number, as well as remote maintenance and monitoring, strategic planning with nonprofit leadership, cyber security audits, and software. The help desk is fee-for-service, and currently supports about forty nonprofit organizations and their technological needs.
Adam King is the IT Services Director for the MNA Tech program. He took a look at the problems at LAAN and came up with a $52,000 proposal. “Just sort of a rundown of what the issues there were – really old computers, sort of like a mismatch of, you know, this computer was bought at Best Buy, this one had been around for a long time, so we had to use it. You know, a lot of times during COVID when organizations needed new computers quickly for their staff to work remotely, they just bought whatever was readily available at local stores, which is not necessarily the best computer to use for work,” he said.
The issues went more profound than that, too. “They had a file server in their office,” King said. “Very old server where all their data lived. Plus, their backup was not reliable, so they weren’t able to tell that yes, we have a backup of our data.” He listed their most pressing needs:
Once the funding proposal was approved, the four-person MNA Tech team got to work, with the help of LAAN’s operations manager, Katie McKay. “I like to joke that we’re still operating in the 1990s, but until recently that was not actually a joke,” she said. As operations manager, she was also working on digitizing LAAN’s paper records, a task that was becoming increasingly difficult as the server began to fail. “The first thing we had to do was address the fact that the server we had on-site hosting our files was failing. So, Adam and Micah came in, they took a look at our on-premise hardware, they looked at our firewall, our server, and really got into this is what needs to happen now.”
The Tech team purchased 15 Dell Latitude laptops, a business class laptop that is durable and secure, and encrypted right from the start. For the network upgrade, they choose devices by Ubiquiti, which provides an integrated platform with firewall, switches, and access managed on the same platform. They also rolled out all the cybersecurity, including multi-factor authentication, cyber security awareness, and training in the form of three-to-five-minute-long videos once a month. “The idea is that regular training, delivered in smaller bits on a regular basis is more effective than once a year,” said King.
The team decommissioned the old, failing server and moved all their data to the cloud, via Microsoft 365, which offers SharePoint, Teams, and OneDrive, and will make it easy to sync any new computers in the future.
“When they get a new computer, all we have to do is register the computer online and we hand it over to the end user, and they sign into the computer, and everything is configured for them.”
This major overhaul of LAAN’s computer systems took place in December 2022 and immediately began to have an impact on day-to-day operations.
McKay played an instrumental role in helping the staff of LAAN get acclimated to a whole new technology landscape. “It’s still very, very new. Our staff is still getting used to new machines, and new setups. It seems to be going pretty well,” she said. She expected that once employees became accustomed to the new up-to-date computers and cloud, she would be freed up to turn her attention to other parts of her job as operations manager.
Schmidgall, LAAN’s executive director, noted that McKay, and her de facto IT predecessor, aren’t unusual for nonprofits. “With nonprofits, you don’t either have a dedicated person or it's just an add-on to someone’s job or you don’t have the money. You know without the money that the health fund gave to the nonprofit association, we weren’t going to be able to do this. We knew it needed to be done but we were not going to be able to do it on our own,” she said.
The revamp means the sensitive information that the AIDS network has is better protected, and their hybrid work model is more workable with business-class laptops and data stored on the cloud, instead of a file server.
Schmidgall says it's the kind of internal infrastructure upgrade that will serve nonprofits going forward if they can find the funding for it.
“A lot of nonprofits just don’t have the money for it. They have to wait until it's an emergency, which is what we were kind of on track to do, is wait until it's an emergency and then it's much more expensive, and then it's like a hair on fire situation. But I think nonprofits because they can’t deal with it and they don’t get the proper funding; their funders are not funding it and seeing the importance of it, they don’t.”