Why this philanthropic power couple gives back

Posted at 5:00 AM, Nov 30, 2015
and last updated 2015-11-30 05:00:58-05

CINCINNATI – Wym and Jan Portman seem a bit embarrassed by the attention.

The Greater Cincinnati Foundation is honoring the philanthropic power couple during its annual luncheon Dec. 7. There, the foundation will present the Portmans with the Jacob E. Davis Volunteer Leadership Award, given each year to an individual or couple who is, in the words of the foundation, "committed to improving the quality of life in Greater Cincinnati." The foundation started presenting the award in 1987, and it's named after Greater Cincinnati Foundation's first governing board chairman and volunteer director from 1978 to 1987.

Still, sitting down with me, the Portmans can't help but be a bit fidgety. They don't seek out the spotlight, and they're not used to it.

"We're humbled by it," Wym Portman said of the award. He's director of sustainability for Pon North America and the former president of the company. He was also the CEO of Portman Equipment Company for more than 20 years and is the brother of U.S. Sen. Rob Portman.

"We follow in very big footprints," added Jan Portman, a geologist who has taught at Harvard University and the University of Cincinnati.

Greater Cincinnati Foundation CEO Ellen Katz tried to reassure them about the honor.

"Ellen told us, 'We don't want this to be about you so much,'" Jan Portman said with a smile on her face and relief in her voice.

So here they sit, willing to do their part to promote the foundation's work and the importance of giving back to the community they love.

A Place Where You Can Make A Difference

Philanthropy seems almost second nature to the Portmans. Both grew up with parents who were steeped in volunteerism in their communities. Wym Portman's mother, Joan Portman, actually received the Jacob E. Davis award in the early 1990s.

They've been married for 30 years now and have three grown children – two daughters and a son.

They met through good friends at a cabin in the hills of West Virginia – halfway between Cincinnati and Washington, D.C., where Jan Portman was working before she was a Portman.

The Portmans at The Greater Cincinnati Foundation

Giving back also was an important part of running Portman Equipment and then Pon North America for 25 years, Wym Portman said.

"Part of our core business philosophy was on customers, vendors and the community," he said. "We supported the community in a lot of ways. From a business point of view, it's always been part of my philosophy that you should thank the community for the opportunity to be successful, and you should help others in need."

Being involved with nonprofit organizations here and across the country also has helped the couple make friendships and meet people they never would have otherwise, they said.

"The world would look so different today without philanthropists and philanthropy, and there's so many needs that can't be met by business or government," Jan Portman said. "Philanthropy is challenging work, and it's interesting work. We've always gotten more back from doing our work than we put into it."

Wym Portman said he also appreciates the way local philanthropy helps build pride in the community.

"It reminds me of something Wym said to me as he was trying to convince me to move to Cincinnati from Washington, D.C.," Jan Portman said. "He said Cincinnati is a place where you can make a difference, and it's proven to be true."

No Time To Waste

These days, Wym Portman estimates he spends about 30 hours a week on his volunteer work. Being a member of both the UC Health and the University of Cincinnati boards make up the bulk of that time, he said. He's spent a lot of time volunteering with Camp Joy in the past.

For Jan Portman, her time commitment depends on the week. But when she's traveling for her volunteer work, it can be that many hours per week or more. She has been a volunteer leader of The Nature Conservancy for more than 20 years. She also works with the nonprofit Rare, which is working to restore global fisheries. And she recently joined the board of ArtWorks.

Both strive to find volunteer opportunities when they believe they can add value to an organization, they said.

Sometimes that's by serving as a board member who works to improve the way an organization is governed. Other times it's by suggesting new strategies for a nonprofit's work. And, for Jan Portman especially, sometimes it revolves around bringing scientific know-how to an agency's mission.

"It's also about a superb director – that's part of it for me," Wym Portman said. "Working with someone who brings energy to me and to the board and has great leadership skills."

And, most importantly, the Portmans want to spend their time and money on organizations that are helping to create real, positive change here and around the world, Jan Portman said.

"The world doesn't have time to do things that don't make a difference," she said. "We really need to dive in and figure out what works."

It's one of the reasons she enjoys working with Rare. Jan Portman recalled a visit to Bindoy, a fishing town in the Philippines where Rare was working to help local fisherman manage their fisheries more effectively. The children of the village had prepared signs about the fish they love and why they love them and had drawn pictures. They had created a dance and song and gave a colorful performance to the group from Rare.

Children performing their dance in Bindoy.

"It was such a remarkable experience to see so many children engaged around that effort of saving their marine system so their community will thrive going forward," she said. "There were hundreds and hundreds of children."

But even for people who can’t travel across the world for their charitable efforts, the Portmans said they would recommend volunteering time or donating even small amounts of money to local nonprofits that are doing good work.

"The world is such an interesting place," Jan Portman said. "I can't imagine you would volunteer and not learn something about that. And you could learn a whole lot about something you're really interested in."

The old saying goes that nonprofits are looking for people to give their time, talent or treasure.

Most of us could follow the Portmans' example and spend some of at least one of those three to make our community an even better place to live.

For more information about the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, click here or go to For more information about the foundation' annual luncheon or to register for the event, click here or go to

Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and also shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. To read more stories by Lucy, go to To reach her, email Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.