The U.S. Nonprofit Organization's Public Disclosure Regulations Site

Detailed Instructions for Nonprofit Organizations Seeking to Publish Online

A low-cost publication service has been established for those who want to let someone else do the work for them. You can fax your documents to the service, which will either provide you with those documents in electronic form for publishing on your Web site or publish them for up to three years on the Web site.


What Format Should I Use for the Online Document?
How Do I Generate a PDF-Format Document?
Scanning the Document
Saving in PDF Format
Publishing Your Documents Online


This page will tell you how you can post your tax-exempt organization's IRS annual informational returns and application for tax-exempt status online in a manner that is LIKELY to satisfy the anticipated IRS requirements for public disclosure. Note that until the IRS releases its detailed regulations on this subject, I can't promise you that documents posted online as I describe will be sufficient. However, online publication of your IRS materials will at the very least demonstrate to your donors, other sponsors, and the general community that your organization is dedicated to the ideals of public accountability. It's the right thing to do.

What Format Should I Use for the Online Document?

The first issue to address is what format the information will be posted in. There are two major options: HTML and PDF. The advantages of HTML format over PDF include:

  1. You can create them with any Web page editing software (or even a word processor).
  2. They can easily be indexed by search engines, and also automatically scanned for keywords within a page by readers.
  3. They are very compact.
  4. No software other than a Web browser is needed to read them.

However, at this time the IRS has not indicated if it will accept HTML-formatted versions of organization's IRS materials. The draft regulations include several requirements for disseminating the completed IRS materials, including that:

The IRS has not yet indicated if an HTML version can be suitable under this requirement, although it might be. The Form 990 Web Site Project is a key resource for information about HTML-format presentation of IRS form data, and I suggest you visit it if you have any interest in providing an HTML-format version of your completed IRS documents. Given the advantages of HTML format that I've described, you might consider providing an HTML version of your completed IRS documents even in addition to the PDF one.

The primary advantage of PDF format over HTML is that it reproduces the completed IRS forms in a manner nearly identical to the original document, and therefore clearly qualifies under the expected IRS rules addressing online publication. A second advantage is that you can use your paper copy of the completed IRS documents to generate the PDF-format version by simply scanning them and processing them through appropriate software. HTML formatting will require you to transcribe the information from your documents into an HTML version, potentially introducing errors. Note that in the not-too-distant future you may be able to submit your Form 990 entirely online and immediately get back an HTML-format version of it immediately for posting online.

Until that happy day, PDF format provides an attractive mechanism for publishing your IRS materials online.

How Do I Generate a PDF-Format Document?

In order to create a PDF-format version of your completed IRS documents, suitable for publishing online, you will basically need:

  1. A scanner (black-and-white or color), with accompanying software that creates a multi-page image file.
  2. Software from Adobe that creates PDF documents.

Scanning the Document

The best types of scanners for this purpose are ones with page-feed trays, as not only are they more convenient but they're much more likely to come with software that creates multi-page image files. There are a variety of file formats for multi-page image files (PDF is only one), and as far as I know none of the software included with scanners can save the scanned documents directly to PDF format. If yours can, you can stop reading this section right here.

Multi-page image formats that your scanner's software is likely to support are: DCX, multi-page TIF , and AWD. The best possible case is that your scanner's software will write files in one of the compressed multi-page TIF formats, such as CCITT Group 3 (1d) Modified Huffman, CCITT Group 3 (1d) Fax, or CCITT Group 4 (2d) Fax, all of which are compression schemes intended to minimize the size of a multi-page image file. If your scanner software as a "Save As" or "Export" option that will create a file in one of these formats, you are assured of an easy time creating the subsequent PDF-format version.

If your scanner software can't create a multi-page image file in one of the formats described, or even worse can only save one page at a time, you'll have to do more work. Also, Adobe software can't read AWD format, but if your scanner software normally writes in this format it will almost certainly also provide an "Export" function that writes in TIF.

If you have Adobe PageMaker and a scanner, you may be able to scan your documents directly into PageMaker. Since PageMaker can write PDF format documents, you don't need to worry about creating an intermediate multi-page file, and can skip directly to "Saving in PDF Format" below.

The scan resolution you use is critical. I recommend 150-200 dots per inch (dpi) as a good compromise between legibility and file size. The minimum resolution to be legible is 100 dpi, although 150 dpi is significantly better. At 300 dpi you will get only a modest increase in quality over a 200 dpi scan. Unless you really prefer the better quality, it is kinder to minimize the time required by readers to download your document and therefore you should chose the lowest possible resolution consistent with good legibility.

If you don't have a scanner, or don't have one that can create a multi-page image file, consider phoning some local full-service copy shops (e.g. Kinko's), or anywhere you can rent time on a computer on-site, to ask if they have a page-fed scanner (i.e. one that is likely to be able to write a multi-page image file). If they have a flat-bed scanner, the accompanying software may indeed be able to create multi-page image files, but you'll be very lucky if you can find someone on the phone there who can tell you. You may have to visit the place and try it. Let them know in advance that you require the file to be in a multi-page image format, so if they can't assure you (correctly) that it's possible you won't have to pay if their system can't provide what you need. Incidentally, don't pay extra for their "really good scanner" since all you need is 150-200 dpi anyway.

Finally, if you have a stand-alone fax machine (preferably with a "fine" resolution setting) and a computer with software allowing it to receive faxes, you probably already have everything you need to create a multi-page image file. Nearly all fax software will write the received documents in one of the multi-page formats described above, either by the "Save As" or an "Export" mechanism. If you have fax software on your computer, but no stand-alone fax machine, take a trip to the local copy shop or drug store, which as likely as not has a low-cost fax service, and fax the document to your computer. There is shareware fax software available online if you don't want to purchase a more sophisticated package.

You should now have a copy of your IRS materials in either DCX or multi-page TIF format.

Saving in PDF Format

To convert your DCX or TIF-format document to PDF, you will need one of the Adobe document-processing software products that writes to PDF format. Note that while Adobe Photoshop can create a PDF-format file, it will only be one page and generally seems to use no compression (i.e. it may be huge). Software that can create PDF-format files is Adobe PageMaker, Adobe FrameMaker, Adobe Acrobat, and Adobe Capture. Also, Adobe sometimes will provide its PDFWriter software as a separate component or bundled with some major software package, and the PDFWriter is by itself sufficient to create good PDF-format versions of your completed IRS documents. You must have one of these software applications to create PDF files.

If you don't have any of the software applications described for creating PDF files, but wish to create PDF-format documents, you will probably want to buy Adobe Acrobat. This software is intended specifically for creating PDF-format files. Unless you can get PDFWriter by itself or as part of a small package, Acrobat is the least expensive option for enabling you to create PDF-format versions of your IRS materials. PageMaker and FrameMaker are page-layout applications, and Capture is an extension to Adobe Acrobat that provides batch processing functions for organizations converting hundreds or thousands of documents to PDF-format.

Do not buy the software directly from Adobe. They sell it at the suggested retail cost, while most physical and Internet stores sell it at a discount. There are many Internet stores that sell software, and all the larger ones will carry Adobe Acrobat.

If your organization is a school or educational charity, Adobe offers a discount program that provides software, including Acrobat, at a steep discount (greater than 50%). If your organization is not a school, but are an educational charity, you may need to shop around to find a retailer that will bother to read the Adobe discount program offer or contact Adobe to confirm that you are entitled to the "academic" discount. By educational charity, I refer specifically to the subset of 501(c)(3)/509(a)(1) organizations that the IRS has recognized as having an "educational" mission, as opposed to "charitable," "literary," "religious" or other designation under 509(a)(1).

Once you have your multi-page image file of your document, and some appropriate Adobe software installed, you can create the PDF version of your IRS materials. There are two methods: print to the PDFWriter printer driver (which is included in all the Adobe applications I described) from whatever software you have that reads your multi-page image file, or load your multi-page image file into some Adobe application and save to PDF format. If you have the Adobe Acrobat package, the Exchange application is the one that will load DCX and multi-page TIF files (use "File/Import/Image") and then save them as PDF-format files. If you chose to use PDFWriter, then load your multi-page image file into whatever software you prefer, and then use "File/Print" and select the PDFWriter as your printer.

If you were unable to create a multi-page image file of your document, but only individual files (one for each page), you'll need to load each image file sequentially into the Adobe software (i.e. Exchange) to create the complete document, then save it as a single file in PDF format.

You now should have a PDF-format version of your IRS materials to publish online.

Publishing Your Documents Online

I won't detail here the steps needed to establish a Web site or upload (i.e. publish) files to it, since there is plenty of adequate information on this subject. If you have an Internet Service Provider (ISP) already, the technical service people there can help you. People with Compuserve or AOL account also can upload files to a Web site associated specifically with their account, and the technical support people at those businesses can help you.

I am assuming it is obvious that you should already have at least a Web page describing your organization's mission and how readers can find out more about you. Provide a link to your completed IRS forms from there. You might also want to include a link to the Adobe page describing their free Acrobat Reader, letting people know that if they don't already have it installed that software is needed to read your online documents.

If you don't have an ISP or a Compuserve or AOL account for your organizations, you can almost always find someone on your staff who does and doesn't use the Web site made available with the account. There's no need to have a fancy domain name with your organization's moniker. The point is to make your completed IRS documents publicly available, and not necessarily to show slick technical prowness.

Lastly, send me an email letting me know the Web address (URL) of your published IRS materials, so I can add links to them and your organization's Web page from this site.

Put your submitted IRS materials online and you'll already be far ahead of 99% of the nonprofit organizations out there, including ones that have spent tens (or even hundreds) of thousands of dollars developing their Web site. That's the difference between dazzling people with marketing vs. honest public accountability. Which do you think donors should reward?

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Last modified 06May99
Copyright © 1998-1999
Eric Mercer. All rights reserved.

The U.S. Nonprofit Organization's Public Disclosure Regulations Site