Does your nonprofit suffer from PDF as Default Filetype Syndrome (PDFS)?

Does your nonprofit use lots of PDFs on your website. Once you’ve read this, you’ll understand why you should often avoid them and know how to start getting rid of them!

Why Nonprofits Loved PDFs

Nonprofits and PDFs go way back. Once it became easy to create newsletters, annual reports, and other documents, PDFs were the fast and easy way to get that information online.

Save as a PDF ⇒ Upload to the website ⇒ Link to the file ⇒ Done

In the time before WordPress made it so easy to update your website, the allure of PDFs was too much to pass up. PDFs also rose to prominence in a time when websites were harder to make look good. The guaranteed-to-look-the-way-you-want nature of PDFs was a bonus for many staffs and graphic designers.

Why PDFs are Bad on the Web

Now that the web is better, the benefits of PDFs have faded and even become liabilities. If you’re using PDFs for certain content on your website, you’re almost certainly serving fewer website visitors than you could otherwise.

PDFs are the wrong format for most web content for many reasons:

  1. Not responsive. Ever tried to read a long PDF on your phone? It’s not good.
  2. Slower to load. PDFs require opening a new program (or a bulky browser add-on) so take longer to load than an optimized web page. Slower sites mean less engagement and more frustration.
  3. Less searchable. It’s harder to add PDF search on your site and PDFs created in certain programs are fundamentally unsearchable.
  4. Written for print. Most PDFs are designed and written for print. Writing for the web requires different techniques to serve your visitors.
  5. Locked up. Think about a print newsletter as an example. It has the equivalent of 4 or 5 individual blog posts. When stuck together in a PDF, those posts can’t be linked to in an email, shared on social media, or simply found by the person looking for their grandson in the picture with the last story on Page 5.
  6. Forgotten. Even if you still think it’s easier to make a PDF and put it online, most PDFs languish once posted, slowly becoming out of date and neglected by staff. Web pages are much easier to update.

Simply put, a PDF stands outside the rest of your site. And it’s not simply a difference in file type. A few years ago, the World Bank discovered that 517 PDFs on its website had never been viewed once. (Irony alert: that linked report is a PDF.)

PDFs are inconvenient for users and encourage you to communicate in print-friendly ways, not for the web.

(When to still use PDFs)

PDF stands for Portable Document Format. (This is where I apologize for atrocious the title of this post.) That “Portable” is key. That refers to the ability to take a PDF with you by saving or printing it easily. Both saving and printing web pages aren’t always good experiences (though they can be!), so providing a PDF for cases that need accurate and consistent printing and saving are OK.

Converting PDFs to Web Pages

There are a few fairly common uses of PDFs that can be replaced with web pages, often without too much effort.

Basic Information

Lots of nonprofits have PDFs that could just as easily be web pages. They should be, given how easy it is to add a new WordPress page.

  • A 1-page FAQ.
  • A program description.
  • A 2-page case study.

Any PDF that is short and mostly text almost certainly should be converted to a web page ASAP. These types of documents are also the most likely to become inaccurate. Worse, a general information PDF often contains important information that visitors actually want! Give it to them in the natural format of the web.


Quarterly or monthly newsletters originally sent in the post site lonely and unread on many a web server. This is a huge missed opportunity for nonprofits. Most of the effort in creating a print newsletter is in the writing time, and it only take a little more energy to re-use this content online! (Remember, WordPress was originally built for blogging, so it lives for this!)

Rather than posting PDF newsletters to your website, break each article into a blog post and publish them over time. These posts will get read more, are easier to find, and can be shared on social media where they bring traffic back to your website.

Review Alert: Scroll back up to the section on why PDFs are bad with an online PDF newsletter in mind. You can really appreciate the shortcomings of PDFs on the web.


For nonprofits that do research, PDFs are the most common format for publishing long-form information to web. It’s unlikely that someone will read a 45-page webpage and it’s also more likely that people will want to print or save these files. A PDF may be a good choice in these cases.

To get the most out of PDF publications, though, create a page devoted to each document, listing the author, publication date, and a multi-paragraph abstract or summary. This information (that’s easily searchable!) will help visitors evaluate the documents without having to open them. Even if it only takes 20 or 30 seconds, downloading a PDF is a time commitment when compared to browsing a few web pages, so you owe it to your visitors to help them confirm they’ve found the right document before downloading it.


Finally, application forms are a tricky case.

Some forms are simple enough that they should be provided as an online web form. (If you don’t know how to make forms on your site, check out the recommended WordPress form plugins on Nonprofit WP!) Many people prefer web forms, and they certainly take less time to fill out when they’re short. Yet even when providing a web form, it may still make sense to provide a PDF form in addition as an option.

On the other hand, there are multiple legitimate reasons not to convert PDF forms. Don’t convert a PDF form if it:

  • contains sensitive information that shouldn’t be stored in your WordPress database (HIPAA, etc.).
  • needs to be delivered in person or isn’t intended for submission (e.g., a self-evaluation).
  • requires a very long time (hours or days) to fill out.
  • is “fillable” and can’t be replicated easily by a web form.

Remember the big advantages of web forms and then work backwards from there to determine if a PDF form shouldn’t be a web form.

Don’t Panic. Get Started.

If your nonprofit has relied on PDFs for years, converting them may take a while. That’s ok! 🙂

Websites are never done, and this is just one small piece of keeping your website happy and healthy. Start with the easiest conversions which are often the most valuable (FAQs, program summaries, etc.). Next, work into your archive for as far as you think is valuable to your visitors.

More importantly, think about how you and your colleagues can change your work habits and website workflows to avoid putting PDFs online in the future. Your website visitors won’t know they’re benefiting, but they’ll just stay on your website longer and leave satisfied.

Choose Your Nonprofit Website Role Models Carefully

When you start planning your next WordPress website, you should take stock of what your peers are doing. Reviewing example sites will help identify nonprofit website trends, analyze common navigation and layout patterns, and inspire us to aim high!

Since I build WordPress websites for lots of nonprofits, I hear what sites people like and want to emulate. It’s surprising how often the same few sites come up. Reacting to these websites will always be a critical part of planning a site, but it’s also a process that can lead people astray.

When looking at sites, don’t just take in the visuals. Make sure to consider the audience, goals, and budget of the sites. Choose your role models wisely!

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Does your nonprofit website serve the same audience?

The needs of your visitors should always drive your website’s design and content. So if you’re an association of trial lawyers, will the design of a site targeting young environmentalists make sense for your organization? Probably not.

It’s surprisingly easy to look past important differences between your organization and another when you’ve come to review a homepage layout. One especially common issue I see? Many large organizations you’ve probably heard of—think the Audubon Society or AARP—have such pervasive reputations that they don’t need to spend much time explaining their work to their visitors. Yet if a new visitor can’t figure out what your organization does, they will leave. Guaranteed.

To avoid learning the wrong lessons from other websites, think about the target audience of the site you’re viewing including their age, primary device (i.e. phone vs. desktop), cultural background, education level, and the top tasks they seek to accomplish.

An exact copy of a site will never be as effective for your organization. Learn from examples, and then adjust your website’s design and features for your audience.

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How do your website goals support your nonprofit’s mission?

Just as each organization serves a different constituency, each nonprofit’s website supports their work in a unique way. The primary “business goal” of your website might be any of the following:

  • Increase individual donors
  • Develop institutional donors (completely different from individuals!)
  • Grow [social] media reach
  • Inform public about a specific issue
  • Provide a service (or intake for an in-person service)
  • Supply in-depth resources for research

Beyond the primary goal, sites must often serve multiple purposes. In most cases, the way your site supports your mission is different than each example site you look at. Again, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look around. It means you should seek to figure out why a website was built the way it was and how your site might differ.

(It’s common to see a website and be unsure of its primary goal or question whether that goal is the right one. Organization’s experiment and make mistakes. Don’t assume that every decision a favorite website makes is a good one!)

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Budget Constraints Require Smart Decisions

Funding for technology is a constant struggle for small nonprofits. It’s critical to set expectations that align with your budget.

This is the worst part of looking at example sites: Especially with large, national nonprofits, the cost of their website may far exceed what you can spend. Heck, some nonprofits spend more on a website in a year than a small nonprofit’s annual operating budget!

When it comes to high-cost websites, watch out for:

  • Highly customized graphics or interactive navigation tools
  • Some types of ecommerce or donation setups (Though check out Give for an awfully nice WordPress donation plugin)
  • Branded fancy animations
  • Significant use of many high-quality large photographs and video

The more complicated a site is, the harder it will be to reproduce on a shoe-string budget.

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Does the site even use WordPress?

WordPress is great at some things and less-so at others!

  • The control over design isn’t as fine-grained as SquareSpace, but it gives you way more ability to grow over time.
  • The online store integrations aren’t as good as Shopify, but you can blog up a storm.
  • Drupal and Plone handle content permissions way better than WordPress, but good luck training your new intern on updating the site!

You can see why certain organization’s might choose one tool over another. It’s true that WordPress can do just about anything, but that’s only true, as they say, given unlimited time and budget.

You should talk to consultant or experienced WordPress volunteer if you’re not sure if WordPress is best for you.

When you’re looking at example sites, keep in mind that they may use certain tools or customization time that don’t make sense for your organization.

How to tell if a nonprofit website uses WordPress

If you do want to know whether a site uses WordPress, it’s easy to find out! Enter the address of any website into WP Theme Detector. It detects a limited set of plugins and tells you what theme it’s using. Pay attention to whether it uses a prebuilt theme, a custom theme, or child theme.

Try it out for! (This site is built with a custom child theme of Twenty Fifteen.)

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Fill in the blank with something made just for you!

Getting the Most Out of Your Site

If you keep in mind the audience, goals, and budgets when looking at other nonprofit’s websites, you’ll end up with a better website. Why? Because you’ll start thinking about websites differently.

Instead of looking at a really fancy video and wanting a really fancy video, you can look at a fancy video and think about how you can appeal to your site visitors to achieve the same thing.

Both the nonprofit sector and open-source software share a love of collaboration, support, and openness. These are good things that make everyone better, but only when we make thoughtful choices for ourselves and avoid blindly following the latest trend.

So choose your website role models wisely:

  1. Identify how those organization’s and sites differ from your own
  2. Take inspiration from beautiful amazing websites

When you’ve done that, you’re ready to make the best possible website for your nonprofit.