Member Voices: A Q&A with Phil Higginson

Fall 2019

Phil Higginson, Assistant Head of School for Institutional Advancement, Ravenscroft School (NC)Phil Higginson

Assistant Head of School for Institutional Advancement
Ravenscroft School
Raleigh, North Carolina
Photos by Brent Clark
This is an excerpt from the NAIS Member Voices podcast. 

Tell us about your role. How did you get here?

I had a very fortunate early introduction to independent school advancement work. My mentor and now mother-in-law, Ginny Howard, worked at The Potomac School (VA). She founded the development office and worked there for 40 years. When I graduated from college, she said, “You know what? This is a great field. You love kids. You love sports. You love working on the business side of things. You might want to think about it.” And so she introduced me to some lifelong mentors, and that’s how it all started.

Could you tell us about your mentors?

Ginny introduced me to Dick Walker, Herb Soles, and Helen Colson—three iconic independent school fundraisers—and I had the opportunity to meet with them for informational interviews before I ever applied for a job. That opportunity allowed me to really better understand development work and the Washington, DC-area independent school market in particular.

Is there a piece of advice that’s really stuck with you?

Right off the bat, Ginny taught me that in the independent school world, there’s a need to network and collaborate with the competition, unlike in many for-profit businesses. By working together, we are supporting the primary mission, which is educating young people. It’s not a competitive business; if every school is better, we are impacting society by educating great kids.

Have you noticed any changes in your field?

Advancement has really evolved and matured. When I first started at Washington International School (DC) in 1987, we had a development office and an admission office. We had a person who spent a very limited amount of time on communications.
Two significant changes have occurred during my career: the collaborative model of admission, marketing and communications, and development, as well as the growth in the marketing and communications area. We’ve gone from a publications office to a strategic marketing and communications center for the entire institution. That has resulted in tremendous growth in that department, allowing both admission and development to focus on their efforts more directly.
Phil Higginson during a recent meeting.
Phil Higginson during a recent meeting.

What keeps you up at night?

I’m an optimist, so I think every challenge is really an opportunity. What we need to understand is that generational differences are really important for us to appreciate and celebrate. My father’s generation may have said, “I’m going to give the institution a contribution, and I trust them to do with it whatever they feel they need to.” A much younger generation, which may be our current parents in our lower school, are growing up in an age where they want to know exactly what the impact of their gift is. It’s not that they don’t trust us; they just are passionate about being involved. We must allow our efforts to embrace those needs.

Where do you find inspiration in your role?

Just the other day, I had lunch at the pre-K playground. You can’t help but be inspired by kids. They are full of joy and hope, and it’s our obligation to support them. On the other end of the spectrum, we just had a major donor event where seniors spoke. We didn’t script them. We asked them to talk about what they felt Ravenscroft needed, and they spoke from their hearts. And when you listen to our students, you realize how passionate they are about their learning journey, how committed they are to the school, and how much they want it to improve for other students.
Working with extremely generous donors is another source of inspiration. We had a trustee who just made a tremendous gift that allowed us to renovate a building. That facility not only changed our entire learning environment but also inspired the culture of philanthropy because other donors are seeing how the impact of an investment in the school can impact all sorts of kids for generations.

What’s your leadership style?

Through training at the Center for Creative Leadership, our year has been focused on understanding polarities. And that has been a tremendous experience for me. We have looked at accountability on one side and unconditional support on the other side. I lean toward the polarity of unconditional support. I firmly believe that through a clear, trusting relationship people work extremely hard and exceed expectations. We need to balance that with accountability. We need to clearly state goals and hold people accountable for those goals. And to be honest, that’s the place where I need to work more. As I work through that polarity, I realize that my team appreciates it when I am holding people accountable in a visible way while supporting them unconditionally. 

What’s your communication style? 

I’m the hallway manager. I’d prefer to walk down the hall and talk to somebody than to have an online exchange. I know it may be more time-consuming because typically you also may have a conversation about a weekend plan or some exciting event coming up, but I think that makes the work real.

What’s your proudest moment?

When you receive gifts from people who have had that enlightened moment of saying, “Gosh, I could really make a difference.” I have a donor who, in tears, gave me $25. The family felt so passionate about supporting Ravenscroft, and the donor was ashamed that they couldn’t give more, but they didn’t have the resources to do so. We celebrated that gift, and we made them feel every bit as extraordinary as the person who might give $250,000. That donor got a new job at a company that will match gifts, and that individual is now a Leadership Donor. That kind of transaction moves from “I’m writing you a check” to “My family is deeply committed to your mission.” The proudest moments are always when donors align their passions with your mission and your vision, and you recognize that they are so excited about their gift. 

What’s the first thing you do when you arrive on campus?

It really starts long before I get to the office. I get most of my work done early in the morning so that I can really focus my time on my colleagues and their work and their needs during the workday. 

How do you unplug?

At the end of the day, if I were to read a hardbound book, I would probably fall asleep, so instead I go for a walk and listen to audiobooks. BrenĂ© Brown is a favorite right now; Dare to Lead is extraordinary. 

What’s one thing about you that few people know?

People laugh when I say I’m an introvert wannabe because I am very extroverted by nature, but it can be exhausting to always be on. And so that ability to be vulnerable and say, “You know what? I need some downtime”—that is really important. So I think most people would think that I am always interested in being connected to people, but I do cherish my alone time.

If you had one more hour in your day, what you would do with it?

I would spend more time visiting with constituents, hearing their stories, and learning about their passions. That gives me the greatest joy. It more often than not results in a gift to the school, but the important part is the connection and reconnection.
Our schools have changed so much over their lives, and frequently our constituents hold them to what they were like when they left. I think it’s so extraordinary to see how schools evolve and allow alumni and parents of alumni to learn about how the school may better align with their personal values than it did when they were enrolled. Without question, meeting with constituents, sharing our vision, and talking about their vision is how I’d spend more time.
Listen to the full interview with Phil Higginson on the NAIS Member Voices podcast. Download it now at iTunesSoundCloudTuneInStitcher, or GooglePlay. Rate, review, and subscribe to hear a new episode each month.

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