I could teach an entire class on databases and database structures, in fact the subject is so large you could major in it at most universities. However, my position here is not to instruct you on how to build a database, but the best practice is setting up your database.
So with that in mind, here are some simple rules you should follow to get the most out of your data:
1) One database
Too often arts groups have data spread out all over the place, their ticketing system is collecting data at the Box Office, Ticketmaster is collecting data at their location, the web is collecting data in another base, a separate database holds donor information, and yet another holds mailing lists, or perhaps even another holds group sales or schooltrip/education information--and then there is business software that has yet another collection, a small database of board members for the executive director, etc, etc etc.
This is the worst sort of "data schema" since you may need to update 15 databases for one address change! There needs to be 1 database from which all information flows. When you update your press list contact name and address, it should also be updating that information in tickets, fund raising, business, as well as your master contact list.
2) Garbage In=Garbage Out (GIGO)
This is an old programmers term that was taught to me almost 25 years ago and it still holds true today. You can only get out what you put in. You need to make certain that the correct information is being inputted into your database, in the correct fields, and in the correct manner.
3) Constant Vigilance
It is not enough to to simply add the information and forget it, it must be kept up to date. When a brochure is returned, do you have a system in place to update the address in the database? If the phone number is wrong, do you take the time to find the new one? What happens to a bounced email? You must have rules and regulations in place to keep your data fresh.
4) Use Technology to Gather Data
Why should you have to gather and maintain all that data? Let others do the work for you. Want to be on our mailing list? Fine, just visit our website and sign up, or use the kiosk set up in our lobby. Want to update your information? Fine, just visit our site, log in with your name and password and update your info. Changed your email address? Just click here to update your contact information. By having everyone update the same database your postage rates go down, and you sales go up. Period.
5) Beware the Rented List
Sorry, I hate these. Do not import a list into your database unless they have requested it, or purchased tickets. Why do you want to add 20,000 or more records into your base that will slow things down, increase mailing costs, and have no history on, just to say "we have a mailing list of 20,000." It is far batter to have a list of 200 that are interested in you, then a list of 20,000 who are not.
6) Find the Connections
By using the same database, you can begin to use datamining to find connections--perhaps one of the vendors that you have been paying $10,000 a month to might also be buying tickets to your shows--and may be ripe for a donation. Or perhaps that person who made a last minute purchase on your website for tickets may be ready to become a subscriber--the more solid data you have, the more targeted you can make your offers.
7) Do Not Repeat Information
Good database design means no information is ever repeated. This became evident with the onset of (MRTB) Multi-relationship table databases. Which created a way for one record to be joined to many records. This means that if I update my blurb on Hamlet, it immediately changes it in the box office, on the web, on tickets, etc.
8) Do not Kludge
We all do it. Instead of fixing a problem, we kludge it. There were so many databases in the early S that didn't have a field for email addresses, so people would stick them in the middle name field, or under fax. Or worse under NOTES. If you don't have the field, and you need that information, get it created. All you are doing is creating problems for yourself in the long run.
9) Protect Your Data
Your database could be the single most valuable piece of equipment you own. It takes years to develop a good, working database, but once you have it, it is priceless. Make sure you take the necessary steps so that only those people who need access get it, and simplify any data entry so that garbage can not be added.
Everyday. No excuses. You will have a data crash, it is only a matter of time. With a daily backup, it is a slight inconvenience. Without a backup, it could be the end of your organization.