One small nonprofit I work with has chosen to publish its monthly membership newsletter as a magazine-style document in Portable Document Format
(PDF), rather than as an email blast. The idea is to take advantage of
a PDF’s ability to retain a consistent appearance across different
- to simplify the job of the newsletter editor, who must put together a lot of different reports submitted by the various committee chairs;
- to enable readers to share the newsletter easily, regardless of the technology they use — hopefully to gain a wider audience; and
- to ensure that the monthly event schedules, and other content with a
fairly complex layout, will display and print out properly for everyone who receives the newsletter.
One Small Nonprofit, Two Newsletters, and a PDF Software Challenge
Because the nonprofit speaks to two distinct audiences, two versions
of the newsletter are prepared each month. A Public version of the PDF
newsletter is available to the general public as a free download from
the organization’s website, and a Members version — with the addition
of “insider” information like committee reports, treasurer’s report,
correspondence, and such — is sent as an email attachment to members as
well as to keen supporters who have opted in to the nonprofit’s mailing
list. A print copy of the Members newsletter is also available by mail,
on request, for members who don’t have Internet access.
To maintain the layout of each report and prevent errors creeping in
when files are opened and saved in different word-processing packages,
each committee chair uses a consistent template to prepare their own
section of the newsletter and submits it as a PDF file. The newsletter
editor merges these PDFs with the main PDF of basic news, the Public
newsletter, to create a Membership version.
So far, this process has worked very well for the group.
But now, at the beginning of a new calendar year, there’s a new
Executive in place and new chairs for many of the committees. Very few
of these people have access to expensive Adobe Acrobat software to
create, edit and merge PDF files — including the volunteer who is
responsible for preparing the monthly newsletter.
Here’s the challenge:
1. Committee chairs and Executive members need to be able to create PDF files from their wordprocessing documents and spreadsheets.
2. The Newsletter Editor needs a quick and easy way to merge multiple PDFs — to combine two or more PDF files into one file.
Bear in mind, we’re talking about a very small nonprofit
organization here, with no central office and no paid staff — it’s
totally member-driven and dependent on the resources of volunteers,
with widely varying levels of technical know-how and accessible
software. (Even if there were a budget item for software, whose computer
would the software reside on?)
How Suite It Is…
If you’ve got MS Office 2007, you can get a free plugin from Microsoft
that adds a PDF format to your Save As options, to get your Word
documents from .doc to .pdf with minimal hassle. This also works with
other 2007 Office applications: Access, Excel, InfoPath, OneNote,
PowerPoint, Publisher, and Visio, as well as the Word program.
If MS Office is not on your computer or in your budget, however, the free OpenOffice.org
suite is a more-than-good alternative. It allows you to import files
from many formats (including Word documents, RTF , Excel and
Powerpoint) and all Open Office applications come with a PDF
export option built right in, so you can easily convert a wide range of
files to PDF. (In fact, Open Office is an all-round solid choice for
an office suite, with just about all the functionality of the leading
commercial products and, in some cases, more.)
Free Tools to Create and Merge PDF Files
Once upon a time, PDFCreator was my free PDF-making tool of
choice for Windows. PDFCreator installs as a virtual printer, letting
you “print to PDF” from almost any application. I stopped using it,
personally, when PDFCreator added a questionable
toolbar that installs by default, setting off spyware alerts on every other scan.
Maybe a problem, maybe not — opinions vary — but certainly a nuisance.
In the latest version of PDFCreator, however, you can deselect the
toolbar at installation (and uninstall the toolbar if you accidentally
do let it in at setup) but be aware that two different checkboxes are required
to opt out of the toolbar, as they’re easy to overlook. You’ll find PDFCreator at SourceForge.net if you’d like to check it out.
I’ve just started playing around with doPDF and it looks like a good alternative in the “virtual printer” category: doPDF supports something like 20 languages at last count and can be installed on both 32-bit and 64-bit Windows systems. And, unlike CutePDF Writer, it doesn’t need Ghostscript to run.
Better yet, you might give Cogniview’s CC PDF Converter a
spin. It’s a free (open source) application that enables you to create
PDF documents from almost any application, working as a virtual printer
like the two applications just mentioned. But here’s one big
difference — CC PDF Converter also allows you to easily embed a creative commons license in your PDF file.
(Not quite sure why embedding a Creative Commons license in your PDFs is a good move? Beth Kanter’s made a solid case for CC-licensing for nonprofits (see What happens when you set your content free with creative commons licensing?) and we’ll be talking a bit in some upcoming Wild Apricot Blog posts about how your nonprofit can use Creative Commons.)
Virtual printers like PDFCreator, doPDF, and CC PDF Converter let
your existing software do all the heavy lifting — so you don’t have a
whole new office program to learn, just to turn out an annual report or
membership newsletter. The real discriminating factor between one such
tool and another will be how well each can translate the features of
your original document into the PDF format. Some work better than
others, and a lot depends on how fancy you get with the original
document. Try a couple and see what kind of PDFs you can create…
If all you need to do is merge two or more PDFs into one, there are a couple of online PDF tools that can do the job. For one, MergePDF.net has a very ugly website, but don’t be fooled — it’s an effective little merge tool, quick and easy to use.
In contrast, PDFHammer
from Nitro (makers of a pretty slick commercial PDF software product)
has a much slicker interface and a few more bells and whistles. If you
need to rearrange and delete pages from the PDFs you’re merging
together, PDFHammer can do.
Both have limits you’ll want to keep in mind, however: (a) maximum
file size (either there’s a limit on the size of individual files you
can upload for merging, or the merged PDF output can’t exceed a certain
file size, and (b) the number of files you can combine. Check the fine
print on those limitations to avoid disappointment, before you spend a lot of time uploading PDFs to be merged. Both MergePDF and PDFHammer (and a few similar
tools that didn’t work so well, so I’m not bothering to mention them
here) will accept your files just one at a time — plan to do another small office chore while you’re waiting!
Neither of these web-based PDF merge-o-matics will do for stitching together chapter PDFs into the Great American
Novel, mind you, but I’ve found them both up to the mark for quick
lightweight jobs — such as a nonprofit newsletter!
So what other good PDF tools are out there, for a zero-budget small nonprofit?
A while back, science educator Dave Riddell shared the results of his search for a new low-cost tool to create and edit PDF files. See Free PDF Tools for Mac for Dave’s recommendations (Skim topped his list), and search “PDF” at MacUpdate.com for a complete list of Mac applications both free and otherwise.
If you’re comfortable with a command line, pdftk — the pdf toolkit can manipulate PDFs in just about any way you might imagine, and runs on Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, FreeBSD and Solaris.
For even more free PDF tools — mostly for Windows, but some Mac,
Linux, cross-system or web-based — see also Cogniview’s mega-list: PDF Editing & Creation: 50+ open source/free alternatives to Adobe Acrobat. What it lacks in detailed description, it makes up for in the sheer number of PDF tools to explore!
What’s your favorite free software for working with PDF files? What tools would you recommend to a no-budget nonprofit's newsletter editor and his colleagues?