February 6, 2012 – When a disaster strikes, aid and donations often pour into the American Red Cross. But how can the relief nonprofit maintain donors and improve outreach at times when the need isn’t as highly visible?

The Red Cross is opening its databases to data researchers to see how customer analytics might provide opportunities with donor information and pledge campaigns. Fewer than 10 percent of those who donate to the Red Cross become repeat donors, and many are only prompted after a headline-grabbing event or a disaster that hits close to home, according to figures from the organization in a news release on the analytics effort.

Through a partnership with the Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative (WCAI) at the University of Pennsylvania’s business school, six teams of researchers will study different areas where new tools can improve efficiency in the Red Cross’ donor information. Researchers will pour over the Red Cross’ data pool of 500,000 donors from 2006 to 2011 and focus on areas such as visualization, clear access in massive data sets and user information privacy issues. Teams include analytics experts from Baylor University, University of Pittsburgh and the analytics research team behind IBM’s trivia show supercomputer, Watson. Information from the research could also provide data insight and marketing possibilities for other nonprofits, according to WCAI.

Accessing customer analytics falls in line with the shift away from “decisions by intuition” seen recently in the corporate world, according to Elea Feit, WCAI research director. That shift hasn’t been prevalent with many nonprofits, where the funds and staffing aren’t always in place for cutting-edge information systems.

"It was a shoot-from-the-hip type of world,” Feit said in a news release. “But over the last 10 years, as marketing migrates to platforms like the Internet and direct mail, we can see what is really going on and what ads prompt a purchase. There is an opportunity to leverage that data and add some rigor to the creativity of marketing."

To watch a video of Feit WCAI co-director Peter Fader further explaining the project, click here.