Among nonprofit organizations that raise the most funds from private sources, the American Red Cross ranks fifth nationally, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

It’s an impressive position on a list that comprises such nonprofit heavyweights as the United Way, the Salvation Army and the YMCA. It’s even more eye-opening when you consider that donations to the Red Cross vary greatly from year to year. Donations increase dramatically during years that see major disasters, such as hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 or the earthquake in Haiti in 2010; they drop in years without highly publicized crises, despite the fact that the organization responds to tens of thousands of disaster incidents annually, ranging from house fires to tornadoes to transportation incidents.

This pattern raises questions for the Red Cross:  What types of individuals give only in response to major disasters?  Can one-time disaster donors be converted into long-term supporters for less visible disasters or for other critical Red Cross services?  What characteristics best predict future donations?  How can learning more about disaster donation patterns strengthen Red Cross marketing efforts?  What marketing and communications strategies are most effective?

For solutions, the American Red Cross is turning to the academic community. And the Wharton Customer Analytics Initiative (WCAI) is playing matchmaker between the nonprofit and research teams worldwide.

The Initiative has developed a unique process for connecting researchers with opportunities from various corporate partners. The goal is to enlighten industry, government, and nonprofits as to how academics can answer their questions and develop solutions to evaluate individual-level customer data.

The research process is initiated with a webinar during which the corporate partner outlines its needs and questions and describes the dataset that will be made available to researchers. Researchers are then given several weeks to submit proposals that outline their approach to study and evaluation of the data. The corporate partner and WCAI review these proposals, select “winning” teams and provide those groups with the dataset.  Research teams are not given any funding—the data they receive from the organization is the reward for a successful proposal. And in academia, a field in which research serves as a faculty member’s lifeblood, access to rich, robust data is extremely valuable.

After nine to twelve months of analysis, researchers present their findings in a symposium, and may publish their work in WCAI’s quarterly e-journal within the Social Sciences Research Network.

This crowdsourcing/matchmaking approach connects corporations to thought-leaders in various disciplines from around the globe. Academics evaluate the research problems in different ways, providing the corporate partner with multiple solutions to the same question. By casting a wide fishing net, WCAI can reel in innovative solutions.

The process has proven successful; several hundred people sign up for each research opportunity webinar with dozens of proposals submitted afterward. WCAI corporate partners include Omnicom, Expedia and StubHub, and many new opportunities are on the way in 2012.