by Shari Finnell, editor/writer, Not-for-profit News

It’s been 17 years since The Milk Bank opened as a nonprofit that provides families in Indiana and throughout the nation with donated human milk. And for years it has faced an uphill battle in helping the community understand the sometimes life-saving benefits it offers to infants, much in the way blood donations are accepted.

An innovative partnership with Versiti Blood Center of Indiana, another nonprofit focused on tissue donation, and the recent formula crisis could significantly change all that.

Jenna Streit, advancement director for The Milk Bank, is all too familiar with the misconceptions that many people have about an organization that supplies parents of newborns and infants with human donor milk.

“I was not aware of The Milk Bank until I was delivering my daughter,” she recalled. “I was having an unexpected C-section and a nurse turned to me and said, ‘Do you want her to have donor milk of formula when she goes to the NICU (neonatal intensive care unit)?’”

A series of questions and doubts immediately emerged in Streit’s mind, she said. “I didn’t know what she was talking about, who the donors were, or about the safety of the milk. It was just so unfamiliar to me, but I trusted my care team,” she said.

That typically is the journey taken by many of the people who have become aware of The Milk Bank, Streit said. “We have been trying to get upstream in our conversations and really try to educate folks early in pregnancy that it could be an option for them. We’ve made good traction this year.”

Partnership built on innovation

The Milk Bank attributes increased awareness about the organization to a partnership with Versiti, formerly the Indiana Blood Center. Although the two nonprofit organizations have similar missions in that they focus on the donation of human tissue, a collaboration didn’t come to mind until The Milk Bank faced an increased need for drop-off locations for its donor mothers.

Through research, the nonprofits found that 31 percent of stakeholders for The Milk Bank wanted more drop-off locations, and 15 percent of blood donors had difficulty accomplishing required blood work.

In 2018, the two nonprofits came together to allow donor mothers to drop off milk at depot locations at Versiti in Indiana and at Kentucky Blood Centers. In 2021, the Meridian Foundation awarded the team a $10,000 Aragos Honors grant in honor of the innovative partnership.

Meridian Foundation founder Donna Oklak, who interviewed members of the nonprofits during the grant-making process, was particularly impressed with the partnership led by Dr. Dan Waxman, senior medical director for Versiti, and a member of the The Milk Bank’s medical advisory committee.

“There was amazing teamwork at The Milk Bank to bring this idea to fruition,” Oklak said. “One ‘aha’ moment, that seems simple in hindsight, was the realization that the blood drive concept could be applied to milk donation. The Milk Bank was able to benchmark and operationalize this idea.  This was when it became apparent that the partnership was more than just a convenient co-location, but also a powerful opportunity to benchmark and share successful approaches in tissue banking.”

Through the collaboration, both organizations were able to increase visibility for each other, create more opportunities to reach potential donors, and provide Versiti blood screening for potential blood donors to become approved human milk donors — a necessary step in the human milk donation process.

According to the organizations, the new strategic collaborative plan also accomplished the following goals:

  • Diversified revenue for both organizations
  • Expanded each organization’s lab and processing staff
  • Enhanced equitable access for all mothers by removing geography and finances as barriers and, over time, will help them reach more diverse families.

Enhancing visibility during a crisis

The five-year-old partnership with Versiti also helped prepare The Milk Bank to handle an increased demand for donor milk during the pandemic and the current formula shortage, according to Streit. The organization now has 70 locations where donors can drop off their milk. (Donors also have the option of direct shipping the milk to the organization).

The milk donations must come from women who have been prescreened through blood tests. From there, the milk undergoes a nutritional analysis, pasteurization and then a sterile bottling process. Then it tested for safety as a final step, Streit explained.

In addition to its partnership with Versiti, The Milk Bank has implemented numerous strategies to enhance its visibility, including promoting testimonials for families who have been recipients of donor milk, implementing peer-to-peer fundraising campaign that highlights the stories of recipients and milk donors, and launching a program, with the assistance of Meridian United Methodist Church, that includes educational materials for expectant mothers.

“We have been helping quite a few families during this time who are who are unable to find formula,” Streit said. “The families that are coming to us typically are searching for one of the specialty formulas that they can’t find on shelves. While this is not exclusively the case, they most often have a baby with a medical condition.

“We definitely have been an avenue for supporting babies during the formula shortage. We have seen a significant increase — almost 90% — in the number of outpatients that we’ve served,” Streit added. “Our donors have been incredible and have stepped up. We typically hear from about 200 Interested milk donors every month. Last month, we heard from 491 potential donors who are excited about helping out.”

Advocating for continuing awareness

The Milk Bank envisions a future in which the need for human milk donation is as accepted and understood as blood donations, Streit said.

“We want milk donations to be seen as legitimate and as equal to blood donations. We are a tissue bank at our core,” she said. “I’m sure it was strange for many people when they first heard about blood transfusions; taking blood out of one body and put it in another. That’s what milk donation is.”

The organization also has taken on an advocacy role throughout its history, highlighting the benefits of breast milk. That cause must continue, Streit said.

“As a nation we are faced with a reckoning on how we are supporting families in feeding their infants. If we cannot safely offer formula reliably, then we need to return to the basics,” she said. “That means how do we ensure that families have every support possible to be successful at breastfeeding? I think more women would choose to breastfeed if they had paid leave after giving birth, safe comfortable places to pump at work and high-quality pumps made available to them.

“Many Americans have a baby and must go back to work within two to four weeks,” Streit added. “Breastfeeding is not even a reasonable option for them. I’m grateful that we can stand in this gap, but I hope that once we get through the crisis at hand, that we look on all that areas that we need to improve and implement changes to support families better.”

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