Through an arrangement with TechSoup, PND is pleased to offer a series of articles about the effective use of technology by nonprofits.

Your Nonprofit's Backup Strategy

The best way to prepare for any disaster is to keep your data backed up. There are two broadly defined approaches to backup:

  • Remote backup: Your computer automatically sends your data to a remote center at specified internals.
  • Local backup: Your computer copies your data to a second hard drive or other media source, either manually or at specified intervals.

Either route (or both) may be appropriate for your nonprofit. One thing to keep in mind is that if you live in an area that's susceptible to natural disasters then it may not be a good idea to trust local backup alone. It's possible that a disaster could claim both your primary and back-up drives even if you keep the back-up drive at a different location in the same city.

Regular backups are vital insurance against a data-loss catastrophe. Developing a solid back-up plan requires an investment of time and money, but the cost is far less than the burdensome task of recreating data for which no backup exists.

In this article we'll offer some best practices and basic strategies for backup.

Save Time by Spending Time

Susan at the Eagle's Nest Foundation is no stranger to IT disasters. ENF's remote campsite frequently deals with power and Internet failures. Susan had this to say about regular backups: "It's better to 'waste' the time backing up than to dread the effects of a disaster that could happen any time. Redundancy in communication options is very important, as is having off-site resources for communication when your systems are down. We have two offices in different parts of the state: this gives us an excellent natural backup strategy."

What to Back Up

Before jumping into a backup solution you should first put together a list of what assets need to be backed up. Of course you should back up the data on all of the desktops, laptops, and servers in your office, but that might not cover all of the data that your organization may need to recover.

Home Computers and Handheld Devices

Do one or more of your employees, contractors, or volunteers work from home? Are they saving their work on a personal computer? If so this data should be part of a regular backup strategy.

Many remote backup services allow you to install a client on a home computer and designate specific folders on that computer to be backed up. As a simpler alternative, require that homework be saved to a work computer every day. Employees can do this simply by transferring data on a flash drive or by accessing the office network through VPN. For handheld devices, refer to the device's manual for backup instructions.

You should also think about keeping an additional backup of essential files on your mobile device. For more information see Backing up Data on Mobile Devices below.


Is your organization's Web site regularly backed up? If you don't know ask your Web hosting provider. Find out how regularly the provider backs up your Web site data and how recovery is handled if an accident occurs. Be sure to check with your provider: even if they offer a backup service it may be opt-in only.

Especially if your provider doesn't perform backups (but even if it does), there are many reasons to keep a copy of your Web site on an office computer. If you start the habit of editing your site on your computer rather than directly through an FTP connection then you can test the site before uploading it and you'll always have the up-to-date site ready to upload in case of computer failure or human error. What's more, you won't need an Internet connection to make edits to your site or find information on it.

Internal Data

Does your office have a lot of internal data stored only in hard copies? For example:

  • Government forms such as 501(c)(3) paperwork
  • Financial information
  • HR information
  • Contracts
  • Leases

This type of information should be stored in a waterproof safe or file cabinet as well as backed up electronically (either scanned or computer-generated).


If your organization uses an in-house email server, it must be a part of your backup plan. Many email servers include their own backup utilities; check the user's manual for more information. If mail is stored locally on users' computers and not on the mail server, the mail folder on each computer must be backed up.

If you only use a popular Webmail service like Hotmail or Google Apps for Nonprofits, these services are generally considered safe from hardware failure. If you use a webmail service that was offered through your Internet service provider, find out whether the ISP backs up your email.

Microsoft offers a backup utility for Outlook 2003 as a free download.


If you have an extensive bookmark collection in your browser be sure to back that up as well. You may choose to periodically export your bookmark file from within the program or point to the bookmark file itself in your backup software. Check the application's Help tool or consult the Web for details.

Social bookmarking sites like Delicious have gained a great deal of popularity in recent years thanks in part to their immunity to hardware failure.

Best Practices for Backup

All backup routines must balance expense and effort against risk. Few backup methods are 100 percent airtight — and those that are may be more trouble to implement than they're worth. That said, here are some rules of thumb to guide you in developing a solid backup strategy.

Plan your backup strategy. Develop a written backup plan that tells you:

  • What's being backed up
  • Where it's being backed up
  • How often backups will occur
  • Who's in charge of performing backups
  • Who's in charge of monitoring the success of these backups

All of this information should be included in the documentation.

Give highest priority to crucial data: Your database and accounting files are your most critical data assets. They should be backed up before and after any significant use. For most organizations this means backing up these files daily. Nonprofits that do a lot of data entry should consider backing up their databases after each major data-entry session.

Core files: Back up your core documents (such as your Documents folders) and email files at least once a week or even once a day. Each organization needs to decide how much work it is willing to risk losing and set its backup schedule accordingly.

Some data is easy to recreate: It is not usually necessary to back up the complete contents of each hard drive — most of that space is taken up by the operating system and program files, which you can easily reload from a CD if necessary. The only exception is if your organization has a dedicated file server; in this case it's a good practice to conduct a full backup of your server before every major update so that you have a way to restore its entire hard drive. A proper file server should also be running a server-class operating system, with software or hardware RAID (redundant array of inexpensive disks).

Test your backups before you need them. Make sure your backup software has full read-back verification. Design a recovery plan and try restoring a few files to a different computer at a different location so you can test your plan before you actually need it.

Backing up Data on Mobile Devices

Your mobile device probably doesn't have enough memory to store all of your organization's data (nor would it be the most convenient place to do so), but it is worth considering what data it would be most essential to have at your fingertips in an unexpected scenario. Consider storing your most essential documents there; for example, what information or files would be key as you wait to regain Internet connectivity so that you can restore from a hosted backup?

Of course, if you're storing sensitive data on your mobile device those files must be encrypted. For instructions on how to encrypt your files see the device's manual.

Alternatives to Regular Backups

TechSoup strongly advises that every organization should regularly back up its critical data. Using the options outlined in this chapter you should be able to find a backup solution that meets your needs and doesn't break the bank. Recognizing, though, that organizations' needs vary widely and that some organizations may be unable to heed our advice, we cautiously offer some suggestions for nonprofits that can't make regular backups.

If it's impossible to commit to a backup strategy, keep your organization's documents on systems with backups built into them. For example, Google offers a special bundle of its Google Apps services free to 501(c)(3) nonprofits. The bundle includes an email and chat client as well as a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation software, all accessible through any standard Web browser. Similarly, Microsoft now offers a Web-based version of Office called Office Live Workspace. A free Office Live Workspace account includes 5GB for storing your files. In both cases, since your information is stored on Google's and Microsoft's servers, loss of data is unlikely (though possible).

Alternatively, you can set up your own self-hosted Web applications on your Web hosting provider's servers, assuming your provider backs up Web site data regularly. OpenGoo is a free open-source suite that includes an email client as well as a word processor, presentation software, a shared calendar, shared bookmarks, and more. You can install OpenGoo on your Web server and provide your staff with accounts to access it.

Are these tools as secure as running Microsoft Office and Outlook on your own computer? No, and they're not appropriate for storing highly sensitive information. But for many of your nonprofit's day-to-day operations they're a better alternative than risking a major data loss.

Of course, should you lose Internet connectivity online services will be unavailable. Keep that in mind as you determine which files are crucial to store locally.

Copyright � 2009 CompuMentor. This work is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License.