In RFF’s Supporter Spotlight, we hear directly from donors about their commitment to issues in climate, energy, and the environment; how they make a difference; and why they support Resources for the Future—all in their own words.
Resources magazine recently spoke with former RFF President and current University Fellow Paul Portney, who reflected on his time in the RFF family. His wife, Chris Portney, also has been involved at RFF, including five years as a member of the staff. Below are excerpts from the conversation with Paul, covering what’s changed over the years, what hasn’t, and the couple’s longstanding commitment to the organization.
What originally brought you to RFF?
I won a dissertation fellowship from Brookings and came to Washington in 1971. My intention was to go into academia and get a teaching job, but I liked Washington so much that I wanted to find a way to stay. RFF was, at that time, located in the Brookings building, and we shared the cafeteria. One day at lunch, someone from RFF said, “We’re looking for somebody to help us on a project. Would you like to spend a year at RFF?” So, I joined in September of 1972—and that one year turned into 33, with the last 10 as RFF’s president.
How has RFF evolved since you first became affiliated with the organization?
When I came to RFF, for all intents and purposes, we could have been an economics department at a university, with the goal of just doing research and publishing in journals. Over time, the Board of Directors and several of my predecessors decided that, for the work to have an impact, RFF needed to better communicate results to businesspeople, environmentalists, and particularly policymakers. As president, I asked the staff to think of themselves as faculty members who both published research and taught. But they weren’t teaching college students—they were sharing with Hill staffers, people at companies, and people in the environmental advocacy community about how our tools and research could inform the design of energy, environmental, and natural resource policy.
We’re now in the 70th year since RFF was established. What do you think the organization’s greatest impact has been over its longstanding history?
In the 1970s, RFF researcher Allen Kneese found a way to address pollution without command-and-control regulation, by structuring regulation in a way that creates incentives for people to clean up pollution. During that same decade, John Krutilla said that if you want to turn a mountain into a ski resort, for example, you can’t just look at how much money the resort would make—you have to look at the value the land provides as wilderness. Later, RFF researchers developed techniques to put a value on the environment, in part by asking people in surveys how much they would pay to preserve an area. Those accomplishments all have made a big difference in the way people think about and value environmental protection.
You and your wife Chris have been donors to RFF for 20 years now. What keeps you engaged?
I have an emotional answer and a more cerebral one. The emotional answer is that I’ve stayed connected because RFF gave me a wonderful career. I learned so much from the colleagues I worked with and was lucky to have mentors and friends at RFF who helped shape me. On the cerebral side, it’s because RFF researchers can go into a project without needing to arrive at a predetermined conclusion.
RFF truly has remained independent and nonpartisan, particularly during a period when nonpartisanship has all but disappeared. I think what I admire most about RFF is the fact that it has strived to remain independent, and I hope it always will.
You and Chris have chosen to make a legacy gift by including RFF in your estate plan. What motivated you to support RFF in this way?
Twenty years ago, RFF was getting ready for its 50th anniversary, and as president of the organization, I was asking for significant contributions. I felt that, if I was going to ask people for big gifts, I ought to make a pledge or donation myself. Over time, Chris and I have been fortunate enough to be in a position to contribute. This type of legacy gift is a way we can give at the end of our lives, even if we haven’t necessarily been in a position to make big annual cash gifts during our lives. We’ve just felt a responsibility to do that.
Four Ways You Can Support RFF
1. Give through our website: Visit www.rff.org/donate to make a one-time donation, or to set up a monthly recurring donation.
2. Give through the mail: Send your check to Resources for the Future | 1616 P Street NW, Suite 600 | Washington, DC 20036
3. Give through a donor-advised fund: Donate through a DAF account at a community foundation or financial institution to support RFF while receiving favorable tax benefits.
4. Give through a will, trust, or gift plan: Include RFF in your estate plans to provide meaningful, long-lasting support.