Putting on the Ritz


DIFFA board member Greg Haynes Johnson talks about the glamour and the hard work that raise funds for AIDS service organizations.

Greg Haynes Johnson may not have seemed a likely fit for the board of the Dallas chapter of Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (DIFFA). A self-professed technology geek, he had no affiliation with the design world when he first became aware of DIFFA in the 1990s. What he did have was a friend who was very ill, suffering from HIV. Johnson moved his friend in with him and started researching.

“I really didn’t think he’d survive more than a couple of months,” he said. “They hadn’t come up with the drug cocktail at that point. I was trying to figure out what to do for him, and I wasn’t even really clear on what kinds of resources were available. I’d been to a DIFFA event and knew it was related to AIDS, but wasn’t clear beyond that. I had no idea what DIFFA did until I started digging in.”

More than a decade later, his friend is alive and doing well. And Johnson, who leads sales for cutting-edge web acceleration provider Netcordant, has been serving as a devoted board member of DIFFA since 2003.

DIFFA Dallas raises funds for organizations that fight HIV and AIDS in the North Texas area. During Johnson’s time on the board, the amount, in grants, that DIFFA gives has gone from just under $100,000 a year to as much as $500,000 annually.

DIFFA is based in New York, but the Dallas chapter has been around since 1986 and is the largest fundraising chapter in the nation. Johnson attributes that success to Dallas’ love of fun, fashion and charity, all of which are encompassed in DIFFA’s largest annual event, the Dallas Collection.

“It’s a magic combination of people in North Texas who are generous, caring, love fashion and love to show off,” he laughed. “Other chapters in other states have tried to do [the same event] and haven’t been able to, for some reason. People in Dallas enjoy fashion so much, and are proud of their fashion sense.”

But Johnson is also quick to point out that DIFFA is about more than a series of great parties. Many late nights and weekends go into not just those events, but the research and collaborations to make the charity dollars raised go as far as possible.

DIFFA grants money to 501 (c)(3) AIDS service organizations all over North Texas, working hard to find out what the greatest areas of need are, where the greatest funding gaps lie, and who is addressing those issues. This year, it allocated grants to 15 organizations, filling nearly 100 percent of the requests for funding that it received.

While HIV/AIDS is perceived differently than it was when still a new disease 30 years ago, the threat is as big as ever, Johnson said.

“We have one of the highest infection rates in the country,” he said of North Texas. “You’d think that in the DFW area, people would be educated and careful. But people—especially young people—don’t think it’s a threat. They’re becoming more careless and cavalier and are getting infected at an alarming rate…so many people who are infected aren’t able to work, they lose the ability to be independent. Those are the people DIFFA works so hard to help out. It’s transportation, helping them find jobs, child care, helping them with support services…One of our biggest focuses this year is to work on education and raising awareness.”

Although the work is serious and Johnson’s background in technology sales and marketing has brought serious gains to DIFFA’s coffers, the organization has become like a family to him, too.

“Being a technology geek was an odd fit at first,” he said, laughing about his start with the organization. “DIFFA has been my passion since 1999. I’ve even tried to retire. I retired in 2009 from the board, thinking it was for good, and then rejoined in late 2010 and reconciled to the fact that it’s in my blood…it has become a big partofmylifeandisabigpartofwhyIgetoutofbed in the morning.”