Give blood, get a gift: Donor incentives could be crucial during pandemic-fueled blood shortage

·5 min read

Blood donors reclined in chairs basked in natural light at a recent American Red Cross blood drive. Mobile phlebotomists moved between trees strung with fairy lights, preparing blood bags in the lobby of the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art.

Off to the side, a table presented free snacks for donors to replenish blood sugar. Next to them were gift bundles of stadium cups, koozies, ballpoint pens and informational material — all splashed with the TowneBank logo.

As a sponsor, Suffolk-based TowneBank partnered with the local Red Cross to organize the drive and provide promotional items. The company also encouraged about 25 employees to sign up.

These partnerships have supported the Red Cross coming out of the pandemic, a time when the baseline of need for blood donations is higher than normal.

The lack of elective surgeries and scarcity of travel-related car crashes during the height of the pandemic meant that fewer people needed the lifesaving units of blood that donors provide. Now that the United States is creeping back to “normal,” the need for blood has skyrocketed.

T-shirts, gift cards and prize giveaways

Another reason to give blood? Donors can get rewards like T-shirts and gift cards.

In May, the Red Cross partnered with Suburban Propane to offer a five-person travel trailer camper to one donor picked from a drawing. The same month, actor James Van Der Beek of “Dawson’s Creek” fame and his wife publicly urged Americans to donate blood. In July, donors have a chance to win gas for a year — a $5,000 value.

Jonathan McNamara, communications director for the Red Cross of Virginia, said the Food and Drug Administration allows the Red Cross to provide items of nominal value as a thank-you to donors. According to its online policy guide, the FDA requires blood from paid donors to be labeled as such but still allows the volunteer designation for blood from donors who receive incentives that can’t readily be sold or converted to cash, including prize giveaways.

Sponsors often provide the incentive items, said Kristopher Dumschat, regional communications manager for the American Red Cross. Those could include Red Cross logo T-shirts supplied by the national marketing department to drives across the country or Amazon gift cards paid fully by Amazon.

“It’s all about the partnerships and what we can do to work the most cost-efficient way,” he said. “Those incentive items are extremely important in helping get people to donate blood.”

For local companies, a sponsorship could mean brand awareness and strengthening community relationships.

TowneBank supports the Red Cross in a way that Allie Wittkamp, senior vice president and director of marketing communications for TowneBank, called a “multipronged effort.” The company has a representative on the regional Red Cross board, sponsors annual events and holds annual blood drives in bloodmobiles at their offices, she said.

For this particular drive, TowneBank reached out to the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art in Virginia Beach about hosting it in the museum lobby, which would accommodate more people. Reduced gallery hours because of COVID means more time that the lobby is available for things like blood drives, said Brad Tuggle, MOCA spokesperson.

During the pandemic, the types of groups that typically held drives like schools and churches were no longer able to. So, the Red Cross partnered with newly vacant spaces like stadiums and concert halls, McNamara said. He called those partnerships a success.

Recruiting blood donors

Now, the challenge is the demand for blood.

Trauma-related hospital visits as well as overdoses leading to organ transplants have also increased the need for blood, McNamara said. The Red Cross prioritizes the needs of local hospitals first but also provides blood throughout the country, he said.

“In comparison to 2019, the Red Cross has seen red cell demand from trauma centers climb by 10% in 2021 — more than five times the growth of other facilities that provide transfusions. Over the last three months, the Red Cross has distributed about 75,000 blood products more than expected to meet these needs, significantly decreasing our national blood supply,” he said.

Sentara Healthcare, a nonprofit system of 12 hospitals headquartered in Norfolk, has experienced a higher demand for blood so far this year compared with last year, said Kelly Kennedy, corporate communications and public relations adviser for Sentara Healthcare. Kennedy said the demand does not affect patient care.

McNamara said the Red Cross is working aggressively to meet demand by actively recruiting donors.

“To account for this, the Red Cross has adapted its operations to collect about 4% more blood products compared to pre-pandemic collections. Because blood products have a limited shelf life, the Red Cross cannot stockpile blood, and seeks to collect within a narrow target goal to meet hospital patient need,” McNamara said.

Paying for processing

Sentara Healthcare receives the majority of its blood from the Red Cross, Kennedy said. And it doesn’t come cheap.

“The cost of a unit of plasma, platelets or blood can vary from a few hundred dollars to a little over one thousand dollars depending on the type and what it is used for,” Kennedy said.

McNamara said most blood products distributed in the U.S. are supplied at a lower cost than what it takes to produce them. The Red Cross charges hospitals based on the costs required to recruit and screen potential donors, collect blood using trained staff, process and test each unit of blood in state-of-the-art laboratories, and label, store, and distribute blood components, he said.

So do the gifts really incentivize donors to come back and give?

Mariah Holt, a mobile phlebotomist with the Red Cross who was at the MOCA drive, works blood drives in different locations every day from North Carolina to Richmond and Hampton. She said people love the T-shirts and even collect them.

But whether they’re what drive people to give blood is up to the individual. Seth Lubaton, a 29-year-old resident of Virginia Beach, has donated about 11 times, sometimes bringing friends with him.

“I think when you do something good,” he said, “you should do it because it’s good, not because you’re getting incentivized by something to do good.”

Elizabeth Moore, 757-247-4517, elizabeth.moore@virginiamedia.com

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting