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Nonprofit Newsletter: Free Tools to Create and Merge PDFs

Lori Halley 18 January 2010 10 comments

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 computer systems:

  • 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…

PDFHammer screenshotIf 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?

Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Posted by Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

Published Monday, 18 January 2010 at 2:31 AM


  • Twitter Trackbacks for Wild Apricot Blog : Nonprofit Newsletter: Free Tools to Create and Merge PDFs [wildapricot.com] on Topsy.com  said:

    Sunday, 17 January 2010 at 6:14 PM
  • Ann Brody said:

    Monday, 18 January 2010 at 5:33 AM

    Appreciate the info on using PDFs for small non profit newsletters, however what we really need are tips for using the Wild Apricot e-Mail feature to send an HTML newsletter. The problem is how to merge information that is sent in various word processing formats and then convert it to a consistent font and style in the email template currently available.  I have tried all the suggestions on the Support Portal,but nothing seems to work--even putting all the text into rich text, then copy and pasting into the Wildapricot template and using the Clean up tool.  Could you research this question for tools that could help with the process? Even an answer about why it is so difficult would be useful.  We hate to have to start using Constant Contact, which would mean more work and expense.  Thx.

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Monday, 18 January 2010 at 6:21 AM

    Hi Ann - by coincidence, I've got a couple tools for just this purpose and had planned to post about this topic later this month.

    FYI, what you describe is a very common problem you'll find with most WYSIWYG editors / visual editors, when you paste in content that was created in MS Word or another word-processing program.  Wild Apricot's clean up HTML tool (https://help.wildapricot.com/display/DOC/Cleaning+up+your+webpage+code+after+pasting+from+Microsoft+Word) does a good job of stripping out much of the excess code that Microsoft Word adds to your files. A couple things may be adding to your particular challenge, as I understand it from what you describe: For one, you're looking to convert fonts via the clean up tool, but the tool is actually intended to *keep* your formatting because most people want to hang onto the fonts and styles they've gone to the trouble to apply in their word-processing documents; and it sounds like it's not just MS Word that you're dealing with, but a whole bunch of different formats...

    Tell you what, I'll prioritize my post about cleaning up word-processing code and try to address your specifics there as much as possible - and then we can follow up in the comments there, so others in the same boat can find the discussion and benefit too. How does that sound to you?

  • Sara said:

    Monday, 18 January 2010 at 6:22 AM

    It's great to get this list of resources, thank you.

    All the same ... I didn't realize that there were still organizations out there that hadn't moved to blog platforms and ditched their print-style PDF newsletters, at least for online dissemination.  Too bad for them, as this seems like a massive staff time-suck and so much less web-friendly and link-friendly than blogging and using social media to spread their message.  It's great that you can help them out with this advice, but such a shame that their PR advisors and executive staff and board can't move them out of 1999 and into 2010 when it comes to web publishing.

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Monday, 18 January 2010 at 7:18 AM

    Sara, as a web designer, I can certainly understand that you see print as 'passe' - but the fact is that many nonprofits still rely on the support of members and donors who prefer to receive their communications in hard copy. Cutting off a section of your support base is not something to be undertaken lightly, when small community-based nonprofits in particular are struggling to stay afloat and effective!

    Interestingly, a preference for print may not necessarily be a "generational thing" either. Did you happen to catch "Selling Nonprofits to Generation Y - on Paper"?    You might also be interested in  the September 2009 edition of the Journal of the DMA Nonprofit Federation (on Slideshare) beginning on page 26 - "Cutting Your Print Newsletter? Think Again: How We Transformed Ours Into a Moneymaker".

    Food for thought?

  • Ari Herzog said:

    Tuesday, 19 January 2010 at 6:39 PM

    I tend to use Open Office for PDF creation, and Foxit for reading them. Both are open source.

  • Sara said:

    Wednesday, 20 January 2010 at 10:33 AM

    Just to clarify -- I'm not suggesting that print is passe.  I'm suggesting that disseminating print newsletters online via PDF is passe.  It is a trivial time and money investment to "convert" print newsletter stories to blog-style format, and the SEO, social-networking and usability benefits are considerable.

    Print is great -- in print!  It is not what the web is about, and I was just really surprised that clients want to spend any time bothering with trying to create downloadable PDF newsletters in about 85% of cases.

  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Wednesday, 20 January 2010 at 11:13 AM

    Ah, gotcha - thanks for clarifying, Sara.  Yes, PDF is a perpetual source of frustration for many... and I am absolutely in accord with you in advocating blogs for nonprofits. Nothing is more effective for online communication and marketing purposes, both.

    In this case, I believe it's a case of trying to accomplish as many tasks as possible in one or two steps, with an varied and not particularly tech-savvy audience that uses a range of technology (including, sadly, many who are still using IE6 -- and I don't have to tell a web designer what a monster headache that can be!)

    The choice of PDF means, for this particular group, that they can quickly create two versions of one document, and share both of them in a variety of ways (by print/mail, by email, as a download from the website, and on Slideshare) without risking the effects of printer- or browser-mangled HTML on spreadsheets and tabular data such as membership reports, schedules, and financial statements.

    You'll be pleased to know that the group is currently discussing the idea of starting a blog -- but the big stumbling block for them there, as for many nonprofits without paid staff members, is ensuring that they have the volunteers who are willing and able -- and inclined -- to create enough content to keep the blog going, once it gets launched. A monthly newsletter, however, is something they know from experience they've got the writer resources to handle, with all the committee chairs submitting material to the volunteer editor.

    One step at a time, I guess!

  • Vicky H said:

    Tuesday, 20 April 2010 at 3:29 PM

    This is great.  Just downloaded the plugin for MS Office and am looking at the pdf merge software.


  • Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot]

    Lori Halley [Engaging Apricot] said:

    Wednesday, 21 April 2010 at 7:45 PM

    Vicky, so glad to be able to help!

Sorry, this blog post is closed for further comments.

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