Ninety-four percent of campuses reported a fundraising uptick in 2010.

A new alumni social networking website launched July 18 by Indiana University (IU) frames connecting with old friends and classmates as an interactive game, as higher education looks for more ways to combine alumni fundraising with social media outreach.

Called “Spirit of IU,” the site goes beyond the Facebook news updates that have become standard among university sites and offers contests and an online alumni directory that doubles as a game.

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“Universities have been great at saying, ‘Hey, look at me!’” said JT. Forbes, executive director and CEO of the IU Alumni Association (IUAA). “Instead we want to say, ‘Hey, let’s talk!’”

After signing up for a free membership, users gain points by uploading photos, participating in photo communities such as “IU Baby” and “IU Traveler,” and encouraging others to sign up.

By amassing points, users can earn prizes from the IUAA that range from coupons for IU merchandise to being profiled in the alumni magazine.

The site also hosts contests, the first of which is “Who Are IU’s Most Fashionable People?”

Users can upload photos of their favorite IU outfits for others to vote on, and then IU alumna Jessica Quirk, author of the recently released book, What I Wore: Four Seasons, One Closet, Endless Recipes for Personal Style, will choose the winner.

The site comes as part of IUAA’s migration from six issues per year of its print publication to four issues, with the additional content to be published online instead.

The online format will allow much more frequent updates, with news updated daily, even hourly, and ideally, from the desktops and iPhones of alumni themselves, said Forbes.

Forbes offers this advice to other universities interested in creating a similar service: “Research and understand your audience.  Design for the least knowledgeable member of your audience. Don’t take half measures–commit to a complete overhaul.  Know what you’re trying to accomplish and base your web environment to meet institutional goals.”

IUAA’s interactive format for alumni networking is an example of campus fundraisers’ innovation as they become increasingly adept at incorporating social media in their campaigns.

IU is the latest prominent institution to build a social media platform specifically for alums.

In February, Oregon State University (OSU) launched the Building Community Initiative (BCI), a computer program designed to “asses[s] the affinity and connection” between alumni donors and their schools.

By using the program, school officials can pinpoint the priorities of individual alumni and streamline their solicitation efforts, clarifying which alums are able to give money to their alma maters and targeting alums for certain fundraising missions, such as a new library or soccer field.

While the Spirit of IU website is not as blatantly focused on fundraising, maintaining a strong community can be beneficial for both alumni and the school.

The site’s revamping comes on the heels of a recent uptick in alumni donations that coincides with increased use of social media by university fundraising campaigns.

In a survey released April 7 by Campus Management Corp., experts found that cultivating a strong online presence allows schools to frequently and casually share fundraising efforts with alumni.

During the 2010-11 school year, 94 percent of schools polled reported the first significant increase in donations since the economic downturn in 2008, and fundraising officials expect the increase to continue.

Ten percent of campuses reported “significant increases” over the past six months and 35 percent reported “moderate increases” in the survey. Twenty-two percent of colleges recorded a “little increase” in donations.

Contributions to colleges and universities fell by 11.9 percent in 2009, and alumni giving dropped sharply, according to the Council for Aid to Education (CAE), an organization that tracks educational donations nationwide.

The steep drop came after a decade that saw college fundraising rise by about 4 percent annually.

CAE’s report showed that even the largest institutions were not immune to the economic slump that started in fall 2008–the 20 top-fundraising universities in 2009 brought in $7.3 billion, or about $1.1 billion less than in 2008.

Forbes said the IU alumni site is not solely about fundraising.  Rather, the goal of the site is to inspire the kind of deep connection that leads to more giving and volunteering.

“For us, it’s more than a pretty page,” Forbes said. “It’s a tool designed to connect people to each other and their alma mater.”

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