A database is an organized collection of information, for example, a rolodex file with address cards of business contacts arranged by last name. The development of computerized databases has had great consequences. Did you use a search engine to find this page?
Developing databases is a topic in itself. Mailing lists for direct mail campaigns are the most common kind of database I have helped people develop, so that is the example I will use here. Major assumptions are:
Chances are you have paid someone a good sum of money to set up your mailing list and also spent a considerable sum on postage verifying addresses. Now you need to protect that investment by managing your database wisely.
Think of your database as a pot of gold. Anything extra that you throw in dilutes its value. Working against the organization scheme dilutes value.
When you go to the database, always assume that the client you want to add is already in the database. Search using the first few letters of the first and last name. Next check for nicknames and variations in spelling. (You have separate fields for proper first names and nicknames used in greetings for form letters, don't you?) If names don't get a hit, pull up a list by house number or phone number. Continue searching until you have exhausted any possibility that the person is already in the database before adding a new record.
Often you will find that whoever set up your database did a good job the first time around and the person is already in the database. In that case, just update the existing information.
Not even if the person is dead! Instead mark records as "inactive" or perhaps "no-mail" if they request to be removed.
The important point is that it is not just data that you are working with, the data represents real people. Typically what happens when you delete records is that you find another computer list or a paper record for the deceased person. You violate the rule above (Do not add new records) and the next of kin begins receiving your mailings addressed to the departed. This is not the way to treat anyone, let alone the family of a valued client.
Even if you manage several mailing lists or have different departments, keep them together. The "active" field is a yes/no indication of whether the person is included in mailings. Set up a yes/no field for each mailing list you maintain. That way, if the gallery opening mailing is returned, you don't have to update several different databases, the address will be corrected or marked "inactive" when you generate mailing labels for the newsletter two months later.
Modern computer systems allow secure networking, even via the internet. Keep your vital information in one secure spot and back it up regularly.
People have legal name changes and they move. Setting up an id or member number allows updating information without breaking links in related tables.
If you print the person's id number on mailing labels, envelopes, and form letters it is a lot easier to locate the correct record to update when mail is returned as undeliverable.
Every time you do a first class mailing or request address correction, collect the returned mail and use it to update the database immediately.
The same goes for whoever answers the phone or meets clients face to face. Verify the client's information at each contact, then update their record in the database immediately. "Hello Mr. Smith, are you still living at 124 Pleasant Street?"
If you bill by mail or send mail orders, check client addresses against what is in the database.
Don't just bang something together. Make sure you have a blank for each and every field in your database and that whoever does the data entry can see unequivocally what information goes where. If possible, use checkboxes to guide people to use categories you already have set up in the database. Put the items in the same order as your data entry form on the computer.
Make sure to include "other" or "none of the above" as options in your categories and monitor them making adjustments in your categories if the frequency of unclassified responses is high. Again, you probably know your business a lot better than your database designer. If they won't work with you, get someone who will.
You owe your clients privacy, especially if you use your database for billing too. While it is cute to address mailings to Joe & Jill Smith, if they break up, things can be awkward, similar to the case for deceased clients discussed above.
The exception is where you genuinely want a mailing to go to an entire household rather than individuals. If you are running for office, you probably want campaign literature to go to every household in your district, whoever the current occupants happen to be. If your organization enrolls entire families, e.g. a church group, maintaining a household-based database might be more realistic. Mailings to individual members of the household can still be accomplished, for example through a related table for "members" linked through the household ID.
This is something you need to discuss with whoever sets up your database. It is best to decide at the beginning whether individuals or households will receive mailings, but it is possible to make adjustments later.