Rebecca Haag
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Rebecca Haag

President & CEO, AIDS Action Committee

He was young. He drank a lot. He was addicted to drugs. And he was infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. He also was enrolled in a nursing program, when Rebecca Haag first met him. She was newly installed as a member of the Board of Directors of AIDS Action Committee Boston (AAC), and in this role, she observed the services her organization mobilized to help this young man complete his degree, get off drugs and alcohol, and learn to control his disease. Today, he is a nurse in the ICU unit of Massachusetts General Hospital. And he credits AAC with saving his life.

His is just one of many stories that have made Rebecca's involvement with the organization "the best job of my life," as she puts it. Today, she is President & CEO of the nonprofit organization that provides free support services for 2,500 men, women and children living with AIDS and HIV; educates the public and health professionals about how to prevent HIV transmission; and advocates for fair and effective AIDS policy at the city, state, and federal levels.

From business to the business of fighting HIV and AIDS

In looking at Rebecca's early career, you might not expect that it would take a turn toward the fight against HIV and AIDS. An Economics major in college and holder of an MBA, she worked as an executive and senior manager in a variety of corporate and government settings for 15 years before joining a WorkFamily Directions, a Brookline, Mass.-based private for-profit organization charged with helping employees of blue-chip corporations cope with child-care and elder-care needs. "I loved the discipline of business," Rebecca explains, "but I needed more."

In 1996, she joined the AAC board and became the organization's President & CEO in 2003. In a way, her business background and her holistic approach to management are integral to her success. "I have always been a social activist," she reveals, "and I believe that problems can't be solved by just one sector. Government, business, and nonprofits need to work together."

Raising awareness in a declining economy

That attitude is especially critical now, in an economy in which nonprofits are struggling. "When the crisis started, a diagnosis of AIDS was a death sentence," Rebecca recalls. "Our system was built up during the crisis."

Since medication was developed that enables patients to live with the infection, however, "less attention is being paid to the disease now," she says. That, despite the fact that roughly 55,000 new infections are reported in the U.S. each year, including approximately 600 in Massachusetts. According to Rebecca, a certain "fatigue" has set in over the issue, and the disease remains plagued by issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia. 

The costs of running AAC remain, however, and in order to meet the needs of its clients, Rebecca has had to bring her business skills to bear on streamlining the organization. "Our biggest challenge is maintaining services in these difficult budgetary times," she says.

Toward that end, she has been working closely with leaders of other HIV/AIDS-related organizations to merge resources. AAC is close to finalizing its merger with Cambridge Cares About AIDS, an organization that provides similar services from its headquarters in Cambridge, Mass. She also agreed to become part-time Executive Director of the Washington, D.C.-based AIDS Action Council, a political advocacy and fundraising group that was struggling to maintain its staffing.

Sharing best practices and leadership skills

To Rebecca, the spirit of sharing goes beyond sharing resources. She also is delighted when she has an opportunity to collaborate with other colleagues in the nonprofit world. For several years, she was an enthusiastic member of Grand Circle Foundation's Community Advisory Board, a coalition of leaders from the Foundation and its long-term nonprofit partners in Boston. Formed in 1999, the group met regularly to explore ideas for resolving issues they had in common, including handling budgets and fundraising, developing boards, evaluating programs, coordinating volunteers, and more.

"Grand Circle Foundation is absolutely wonderful," Rebecca says. "The thing I love about them is that they don't just give you money. They work in collaboration with you to help you meet the goals of your mission. They encourage innovation and brainstorming. That group gave me great camaraderie and support."

Seeing illness from the other side

While every compassionate person understands the importance of supporting others, it's quite a different matter when you need that support yourself. So Rebecca discovered last year, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. "It's humbling to have to deal with illness and the medical system," she admits. "And it made me realize that I'm lucky that I have great friends and health insurance, and that I'm not a single mom or homeless or addicted to drugs or caught in an abusive situation—things our clients face, in addition to dealing with HIV or AIDS."

She credits her staff with helping her through her personal crisis and keeping the organization running smoothly, just as she credits them for all the services they provide. "We treat the whole person," she says. "We help with transportation, nutrition, housing. It's the only way to get people back on their feet so they can lead productive lives."

Still, while she believes it is possible to find a cure for AIDS during our lifetime, she also stresses the importance of education and prevention—and here again, she has high praise for Grand Circle Foundation. As the Foundation shifted its focus toward youth, Rebecca developed a curriculum that she proposed to present to organizations headed by her former Community Advisory Council members, such as West End House Boys & Girls Club, SquashBusters, and others. "Grand Circle Foundation became an angel investor and got other partners involved," she says. "I love it that they're focused on leadership development. It's important work that Grand Circle Foundation does with regard to fostering the next generation of leadership and creating something sustainable."

It's an appropriate sentiment for someone who's a very gutsy leader herself.

Learn more about AIDS Action Committee Boston's recent AIDS Walk fundraising event, and Grand Circle Foundation's contribution.