Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Data Management at Small(ish) Arts Orgs - Part 1

Disclaimer: This series is based solely on my personal experiences. I'd love to hear about yours!

@BushCatMarley approves of digital data management.
At each of my internships, one of the first questions I ask myself is "How are they managing their data?" Since the beginning my professional life, I've had a nerdy interest in data management and a compulsion to bring data together and organize it in an accessible, efficient way.

Some arts and culture organizations embrace these ideas with open arms and encourage employees to make time in their day to work on process improvements. At others, employees are under so much pressure to complete the tasks required to fund, produce, and market their art that they do not feel they have the luxury of taking any time away to improve the technology and processes that will help them better manage and engage with their data. Suggestions to do so are at best put in the lowest priority queue and at worst ignored. On one hand, I get it: making art is the most important goal and with a limited budget and staff, there's a lot to do just to get the show on stage, make sure it's funded, and let people know about it. But based on my experience at non-arts non-profits and for-profit enterprises, I firmly believe that investing time and resources in data management provides an extraordinarily high ROI, including a less-stressed, more productive staff!

So where do we go from here? How can arts organizations, especially small ones with limited staff and budgets, tackle data management challenges?

There's another important question to ask, before making any recommendations: What sorts of data do arts organizations need to manage? Any organization looking to evaluate and improve data management, needs to first take an inventory of the types of data they want to store, analyze, and track.

A Quick and Dirty Example: Data at a Small Non-Profit Theatre 

Audience: Contact info, ticket purchases, donations, attendance patterns, demographics, personal notes (on potential donors, loyal attendees, allergies, seating preferences, etc.)

Artists: Contact info, contracts, agency info, program participation, career tracking

Support staff: Documents created by in-house staff. Everything from meeting notes, to grant applications, and play scripts.

Marketing: E-mail blasts, website management, social media, logos, print media designs

Paper files also provide excellent kitty seats.
@Bush_Cat_Pirate, keeping the Bush's
files under control.
Financial: Managing the organization's budget. Accounting and taxes aren't really my specialties, so I won't go into it here, but it is worth mentioning. Note that I consider this separate from tracking fundraising prospects and donations.

Paper: You know, from back in the day before computers. And press reviews, and letters received from foundations and other supporters. It will be awhile before any theatre goes paperless, simply because other organizations we work with require it (many, many grants still ask for paper applications with a postmark date deadline). So a good old-fashioned paper filing system is absolutely necessary. Or a really quick scanner. Or a slow one and an intern. (kidding...mostly.)

It's also important to keep in mind that managing data doesn't just mean storing it. It also means organizing data in a meaningful way, so that it can be accessed and analyzed to provide powerful information about how audiences, donors, and artists are responding to the organization's programming, marketing, and fundraising efforts. That's the kind of information that helps arts organizations build audiences.

Coming up in Parts 2 & 3...

  • How do these organizations manage their data?
  • What challenges are they facing?
  • What can small arts organizations do to organize their data in a more meaningful (and sustainable) way?


  1. This is very good. However, I think the words "meaningful", "accessed", and "analyzed" in the last paragraph need concrete examples for those who otherwise don't "get it.". I imagine that's what Part 3 will be about, but don't jump into "more meaningful" without first giving the ABC's of basic "meaningful."

  2. Thanks for the comment, Dr. Dave! You're correct, those examples will be coming. Part 2 will be an overview of some of the tools arts orgs are currently using and how. Part 3 will delve into why data management is important and how well-organized data can be analyzed to provide insights about an organization's audience and how to reach them.