The History of Automation in the NSS Office

By Phil Winkler, NSS 13627LF

March 8, 2006

(Revised December 26, 2007)

 

The Seventies

The NSS moved to a permanent headquarters in Huntsville, Alabama about 1972. Prior to that it existed in one or more personís basement or home office in the DC or NJ area. Our membership records were maintained in a series of journal ledgers and new NSS numbers were simply entered onto blank lines and, as new members joined, they got the next sequential number in the ledger.

 

Each member had a couple of metal Addressograph plates typed by hand on a large metal embossing machine. One plate went into a tray for the NEWS and another went into the corresponding tray for their renewal month. Each membership card was also typed and then mailed. The metal trays were known by the staff as Ďsortsí. Each sort was for a specific purpose. When someone mailed in an address change it meant two or more metal plates had to be retrieved from its sort and new ones made, then replaced in the proper sort. I wonder how many mistakes were made then? Still, the NSS was much smaller then, perhaps 4,000 members.

 

There seemed to be or was little accounting discipline then and certainly no way to ensure accurate accounting other then manual methods. I have no idea how that was actually done then, either.

 

Amanda and John Stokes, both Huntsville Grotto (HG) members took an interest in the Office when the first Office Manager, James Johnson, stepped down and Amanda stepped in. John ran a computer data processing business and offered to maintain our membership data on his systems for a minimal cost. Vicky Cothran was one of the Office Secretaries then and she spent many days entering all the members into the computer system.

 

The Addressograph system was retired and the generation of labels became much easier. Vicky worked evenings at Johnís business entering the new members and entering addresses as well. The Monthly Mailing, I think, was also generated by Johnís system. This automation step provided the benefit of increased efficiency and accuracy in our system. The downside was the expense of outsourcing the operations.

 

The Eighties

 

This is when personal computers were becoming popular. A Committee was formed (of course) to study which brand of PC the Office should invest in. The candidates were Apple, DEC Rainbow, Zenith, Commodore, IBM and a few others. There really was no standard operating system at that time. Hard to believe, but this was ca. 1981. Tom Rea really made the decision to buy an IBM-PC with dual 360k, 5 inch floppy drives (original base cost was $1,600) since he had volunteered to write the database. It was first written in dBase, but it ran too slow so Tom wrote it using the COBOL language.

 

Tomís program now made it possible to handle the membership names and addresses as well as fast label generation, automatically assigning new NSS numbers (no more ledgers!)and generation of the Monthly Mailing within the Office. A year or two later the IBM-PC was replaced by an IBM XT with a hard drive, a huge leap in performance at that time. Tom could also access the PC remotely from Indiana to make additions or modifications to the program code. We now had a system completely in-house that saved time and money for the NSS. The program did not, however, handle money received. Accounting then was done with ledgers and spreadsheets. Later in the eighties accounting software was put into use. I think the first program we used was DacEasy since that was the software used by our Treasurer. Many separate accounting processes like Library inventory were handled with Lotus.

 

The Nineties

 

Our membership total had doubled and the Office staff was increasingly pressed to find time to manage all the membership tasks needed. The decision was made to install a network to improve the situation. Unfortunately, the membership database had never been designed for multiple users (who knew?) and it just wasnít possible or economically feasible to rewrite the current program.

 

Around 1993 or 1994 I approached Tom Rea at the Old-Timers Reunion to discuss moving to a relational database management system with which I was familiar, PeopleTrak/MeetingTrak (now called MemberTrak in the latest Windows version at www.gomembers.com ) written with the DataEase RDBMS. The Trak series of association management software has been the most popular for over 20 years. This program was very familiar to me and fully multi-user for our network (Novell). Another advantage was the new program also handled money associated with renewals and new members, another big benefit. We renamed the program NSSTrak.

 

Somewhere around 1994/1995 Camille Duke came on board as the new Office Manager and she and I spent the next two years customizing NSSTrak to accommodate the vast number of tasks required. These included automating renewal letter generation and the addition of emailing renewal notices to those with email addresses. NSSTrak went live in May of 1995.

 

It carried with it several major improvements as well as being a multi-user system. For the first time money received for memberships and renewals as well as book orders and donations was accountable and traceable to the member. There was a Daily Audit report that had to balance with the receipts in hand or find the reason why. This was a major advance.

 

If the amounts balanced NSSTrak could then export the money data for importing into our Accounting system (LedgerMaster) as Journal Entries. This eliminated the need to enter data twice;a common source of error in an office environment.

 

It has always been our goal to seek ways to automate repetitive tasks whenever possible. To this end NSSTrak has received hundreds of hours of customization based on requests from the Office staff.

 

For example, when preparing renewal notices each month (a batch operation) the user simply enters a single date and the system automatically generates the appropriate letter based on a Memberís status. Members receive a First Renewal Notice then a Second Reminder and finally a Notice they have been Dropped. These are our business rules as spelled out in the BOG Manual. This is called Anniversary membership processing.

 

Our system maintains the rules for each Membership Type, too. Whether they receive publications or not, whether they can vote, etc. Each year before the convention a process is run that generates a listing of voting members per internal organization that is used in the Congress of Grottos. Prior to automation this was not an entirely accurate procedure as you can imagine. Now we can show at any time how many members there are for each membership type and how many for each IO by count and name.

 

A member record contains all the items of data needed to manage and service our members; typical demographic info, several different address blocks all put together from the single address source for Members Manual, Address labels (all upper case) and internal letter address blocks. The address block for the Members Manual also contains formatting codes to enable the editor to more easily format each entry by using macros or search and replace. These codes are entered automatically by the system as data is entered into each record.

 

Other information in the memberís record includes the email address, all awards given and the date awarded, date joined, grotto affiliation, sex, date of birth, expiration date, membership type, whether to publish in the Memberís Manual, Spouse NSS# for family members, occupation, etc., etc. In short, all the information we can capture is held in a single memberís record where it may be used over and over again and only have to be updated in a single place.

 

Also, maintained for each member is a Transaction file that contains one record for each and every action by that member. These include: Date joined, every renewal, type of renewal, dropped, reinstated (reinstated members are not eligible for NSS longevity awards since their membership is not contiguous per our Acts), donations, address changes, membership type change, etc., etc. If any of these Transaction Types includes money a GL Account is automatically applied to ensure accurate data is exported to our accounting system.

 

Once all the daily membership transactions have been entered and posted the system prints out the new membership cards on blank stock. All images and data come from the database. Also included on each card is the NSS Presidentís signature from a source image file on the computer. All done automatically by selecting a menu item..

 

It then prints new member welcome letters and membersí renewal acknowledgement letters. The stuffing of the envelopes is done by hand, but we use windowed envelopes to eliminate the need for labels and mismatching a letter with a label. It used to happen occasionally.

 

Finally, on a monthly basis it prepares the Monthly Mailing (MM) from the Transaction file and writes it to disk where it may then be emailed to members or mailed. The MM is a statistical summary of all membership activity for the month and is used for a variety of purposes by different people including the Membership Committee.

 

This is a brief description of the membership tracking software used by the office. The database engine used is DataEase version 5.17 and is DOS based. The main drawback to this is it does not use the Windows printers, but prints directly to a hardware port. This works very well, but is outside the way Microsoft thinks things should be done.

 

The Next 5-10 Years

 

As of January of 2006 we have a newly installed, state-of-the-art, Windows 2003 file server network and two new desktops running Windows XP. The Dogwood City Grotto has donated two additional new Dells for the library and the bookstore. Our software runs on this platform very well and there is nothing visible on the horizon that will affect that state for, say, the next 5-10 years.

 

I evaluated MemberTrak (www.gomembers.com), the Windows version written in Access 2000 and very similar to our NSSTrak. What it lacks is the customization weíve done to more highly automate our processes based on our requirements. Its structure is very similar, though, and if we purchased the source code, as we did with NSSTrak, then a knowledgeable and talented database person with Access skills could add the fields necessary, modify reports, etc., etc. The cost of MemberTrak is approximately $10,000 and support is an additional $3,200/year. I donít know if this is multi-user or not.

 

Bottom Line

 

Efficient and effective membership and accounting software has enabled the NSS to operate with a far smaller staff then many organizations of similar size and function. Moving to a Windows version will require a dedicated and skilled person to make the necessary modifications or the NSS will incur quite large consulting costs for the software company to make the changes. As in many other areas of the NSS finding the right volunteer is what we do best.

 

 

 

The First Decade of the 21st Century

 

The early part of this decade saw our web site being developed and more and more uses have been found for it. Indeed, we are on at least our third web host/server and have had several IT chairpersons each of whom has added to our web capabilities.

 

A member search facility was added to caves.org and gets refreshed with current data every 24 hours from the NSSTrak membership database in the NSS Office. This process is automatic as long as our office file server is running. Members can search for other members by a wide variety of fields: Last name, first, city, state, grotto, zip, etc., etc.

 

The NSS Bookstore Online has increased sales and itís data also comes from our accounting/sales system in the Office where it is routinely maintained.

 

New memberships, address changes and membership renewals may also be done online thereby saving postage costs and staff time in the office. Underway shortly will be online credit card processing for renewals, too. Data from these online transactions will be sent to the office on a daily basis. This process has the potential to significantly reduce the amount of work necessary to process memberships.

 

Finally, demonstrating our conservation practices, the New Member Acknowledgement Letter also contains the membership card and the convention discount card all on a single piece of paper. Not only does this save paper, but it also reduces staff handling time and the potential for error when stuffing the envelopes. This new letter is automatically generated when a new member is entered into the database.

 

Weíve come a long way in 40 years.