Client Spotlight: Monique Childress, Horizon Advisory Group
At VaVa Virtual, we are constantly inspired by the stories our clients have to tell about how they started and why they do the work they do.
This month, we are privileged to introduce Monique Childress, Founder of Horizon Advisory Group, LLC, a boutique consulting firm based in Atlanta, GA. Monique lifts up non-profits by helping their leaders to “define the path to their next horizon through organizational assessments, strategic planning, and coordinated stakeholder facilitation.” Read on to learn more!
tell us a little bit about Horizon Advisory Group and how you started?
Horizon Advisory Group is an organizational strategy consulting firm, based here in Atlanta. We help mission-driven leaders define a plan and a path towards their next horizon through organizational audits, strategic planning, and team facilitation. Our clients are community-minded organizations, usually non-profits, across the state, the Southeast and more recently across the country.
We offer strategic planning to help our clients answer questions like, where’s our organization going and how can we get there. Our audits help to determine what barriers or areas of improvements our clients may have that may be keeping them from growing or just keeping them in survival mode. And then for team facilitation, our clients are really able to make sure that the time spent in workshops or retreats, whatever the engagement is, that it’s productive, efficient, engaging, and interactive so that it justifies the time spent away from the day-to-day work. The time truly flies for our clients and they’re usually able to walk away with decision clarity or insight as to what they as a team can do next.
I started Horizon in early 2019 as a way to merge my corporate consulting experience with my desire for more purposeful work. I had joined a large global consulting firm, out of grad school, eventually becoming a manager focusing on organization strategy and change management for some of the largest companies in the world. And I loved the work, it challenged me and prepared me to work with new industries and client teams every few months.
But then an opportunity presented itself to manage one of our office’s pro bono projects with a local nonprofit organization. And with that I focused on bringing hundreds of stakeholders together to develop a three-year strategic plan, convening partners across the metro Atlanta area, facilitating design thinking sessions, all with the goal of stopping the demand for human trafficking. It was such a heavy topic, but it was like a lightbulb went off because, for the first time, I was able to do strategic work that had a major impact on the client and the community.
So I soon realized, after that project, that my usual day-to-day work wasn’t fulfilling enough and maybe my purpose could run a bit deeper.
What do you find that nonprofit organizations are most concerned with right now in terms of their organizational behavior? Is there a pattern you see?
Yes, I think right now, in terms of the organizations, the biggest concerns from leaders are, having gone through COVID and the pandemic, a lot of clients, especially those that provide direct services to the community, they’re burned out.
They were probably already burned out or on the verge of it, because they’re so heavy in the work, so passionate in the work, there’s always more to be done. And then when you layer on a pandemic that also stops you from being able to be in the community, with social distancing, and wanting to protect everyone but also realizing they still have the needs, whether it be food insecurity or workforce development—I work with a lot of clients in those realms—the work still needs to be done.
And I think we all realize that we were all personally affected by the last 15 or so months in our own way. Right now it’s about having gone through this and dealing with some burnout, how do we forge a path forward, so that as an organization we’re still trying to be sustainable, and thriving for the client that we serve. But how can we think about the roles that our teams play, so that the work is distributed, we’re getting what we need out of our employees, while we’re still trying to recognize the humanity of our employees.
tell US something you love about the work that you do?
The organizations that I work with, they’re doing phenomenal work, from direct service support for our most vulnerable populations to affecting real systems change. The clients I work with—I mentioned food insecurity and workforce development—there’s also environmental justice, criminal justice, and anti-human-trafficking. They are working on just such important issues and the leaders of these organizations are so passionate about their work.
So whether we’re planning or doing some team building, our work together is really about letting their expertise shine, giving them that validation that they are doing the right thing for their organizations, where sometimes it can feel a little bit thankless, in their role, whether they’re dealing with the Board, or dealing with the community, or dealing with funders. So I always tell my clients that you are the experts in your work and my role is to bring strategic clarity to the work, to get what’s in your head out to your stakeholders, and make it real for your team and board to come along for the ride.
It’s always amazing just to see this sigh of relief from my clients when they realize they are working with someone who listens to understand and can translate their passion into a clear vision and an achievable plan.
So you work with them on how they report on their work?
Yes, that can be part of the work especially if we’re looking at organizational audits because then I‘m talking to their partners, the board, and the staff. That’s where you can uncover if there are any gaps when it comes to impact reporting or tracking.
But for the most part, a lot of my clients know the impact that they are making. What we usually end up working through is that there are so many ways to make an impact, how do we choose what to do? Things can fall into your lap, especially when there’s money attached, and so it’s like, “Yes, we can do that.” but it is actually pushing the mission forward, is it actually going to help achieve the vision of this organization. And do we have the resources and the capacity to actually do this work. That’s really where a lot of the work focuses and then you’re able to just tell a clearer impact story because we better understand the work that we actually do.
tell US a little bit about what you find challenging about your work?
When it comes to strategic planning, my work is usually funded by local foundations. Most of my clients are organizations led by people of color. Well, it’s proven that on average nonprofits led by people of color win less grant money and with more strings. So it’s more restricted funding than unrestricted. They also tend to have lower annual budgets on average than white-led organizations. So, while the need and the desire for strategic planning may be there, some leadership teams have a hard time going through the process because they are not yet at a financially sustainable place. So if you think about mindset, they’re more focused on survival than envisioning an ideal world and getting out of the day-to-day,
And then there are some that can’t afford to pay a consultant out of pocket, but they don’t yet have relationships with local foundations. Or the foundations want to see a sustainable plan of action so that they know that the organization that they are funding is going to be around within the next 3-5 years and actually doing what they say they are focused on within their mission. So it can be a bit of a catch-22, of needing funding to get strategic planning and needing strategic planning to get funding.
So that’s why I started focusing more on team facilitation, especially over the last 15 or so months. A lot of organizations just weren’t in a place to really think 3-5 years ahead. Because of all of the changes that have been going on, it’s really a 6-18 month window that we were looking at. So these shorter engagements where we can have those really foundational conversations as a leadership team and come up with a simple plan of action to work against. Then usually that can help them to get in the door for more funding conversations. It’s a challenge, but those are the clients that I really want to work with, so it’s better understanding their needs and how I can still support them. That’s the goal.
What advice would you give other business owners?
When I started, it was out of an individual need of me wanting to find more purposeful work and I wasn’t looking to start a business with other people. So, it can get a bit lonely, you’re trapped in your thoughts and there are all these things you have questions about or you want to try out and you don’t have that team sitting around the table that you had when you were working full time. So I would say my main advice is finding people in your space that are doing similar or complementary work and not just networking for networking’s sake, but actually build relationships. You need people to talk to so you can get out of your own head, and you need to have people to vent with or to problem-solve or bounce ideas off of. And that may not always be your friends and family. I think you can make the case that it shouldn’t be your friends and family. Unless they’re also business owners, they just want what’s best for you, unlike when you’re talking to other business owners.
Actually maintaining those relationships, that’s really been key and it’s been a source of partnerships and referrals, and they can come at any given time. So I’ve started setting up quarterly check-ins, just to see how things are going and it’s been pretty helpful for me in strengthening my network.
mentorship helps quite a bit. Have you developed relationships with mentors?
Yes, it’s definitely important and initially, I was looking at my monthly group as a quick form of mentorship, more peer-to-peer mentorship. But I am starting, I think, as the business grows and in thinking about building out, I have goals to hire some staff and to really grow the business.
I think getting to that next stage will definitely require mentorship. So identifying those that are about 5-10 years ahead of me, that has been a goal of mine. I’ve been able to make a few connections and have some mentoring conversations over the last couple of years. But that’s definitely a priority over the next 6-12 months is to identify additional mentors and nurture and water those relationships.
How is working with VaVa?
It’s great! I hadn’t worked with an assistant or an assistant service before. I think the Account Success Manager, having someone like that to say to, “I know I need help, here’s where I’m at, here’s what I think I need help with,” and then have them make recommendations around, “It sounds like you need a virtual assistant” or “It sounds like you need a digital marketing assistant.” I think that was really helpful.
There were some transitions from the assistant that I had, and so what I appreciated about VaVa and why I wanted to go with an agency is the knowledge transfer systems and processes were there to limit the disruption. I think that the Account Success Manager did a really good job of trying to get someone on staff for my work and make sure that all things were transferred so we could quickly get up and running.
Right now I have a digital marketing person who’s been very helpful with my social media presence, which I severely lack skills in. I don’t really have the time and I don’t really feel confident creating posts. So having someone that looks at it weekly and just takes my ideas and runs with them. So it’s always exciting to see my posts as I’m scrolling. I told her last week,” I would have liked it even if it wasn’t posted from my account!”
Anything WE didn’t ask about that you’d like to mention?
Earlier this year, I partnered with a non-profit executive director that I met through a networking event and we created a network of Black women nonprofit leaders. We hosted a summit in January, that we’ve now deemed the inaugural summit, and we’re starting to build out the network.
We’re doing quarterly events that focus on social aspects, problem-solving and professional development. We hosted a think tank, roundtable, mastermind type of event on July 21st. It was for Black women nonprofit leaders to be able to bring the issues that are top of mind over a one-hour session and help other women like themselves, problem-solve and listen and provide some solutions. That was our summer quarterly event. Then we’ll have a professional development event in the fall and we’ll have our second annual summit come January. It’s called the Sista Nonprofit Network.
We’re really trying to build it up, but we started with about 70 people at the first summit, so we’re looking to continue to grow that network and provide the resources for those that I mentioned are under-resourced and alone in the work to not feel so alone. We have a LinkedIn group that’s very active and a website being built.
Thank you to Monique Childress for sharing her career journey and how working with VaVa Virtual Assistants has helped. Her work inspiring the growth of non-profits and their leaders is admirable. We love seeing the impact our clients have in their communities!
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