Guidance, Counsel and Mercy with Cherrise Wilks

Tuesday August 9, 2022 comments

Any accounting business and tax advice contained in this podcast is not intended as a thorough in depth analysis of specific issues. Nor is it a substitute for forming information. Nor is it sufficient to avoid tax related penalties. If you have specific questions that you need advice for, be sure to schedule a strategy session and not solely rely on information in this podcast. 

Hi, it's Chyla Graham CNRG Accounting Advisory. This interview series will be with Cherrise Wilks. Her bio is Cherrise is a giver of information, guidance, counsel, and mercy, with a mission to serve others, to meet their goals and find the resources they need. She's an experienced administrator with over 18 years in federal state, local government and nonprofit sectors. Ms. Wilks recently served as an emergency manager slash community development specialist, and formally as a hazard mitigation grant specialist for the US Department of Homeland Security. Her firm has been successful in securing more than 77 million and managing 300 million in federal state and private grant contracts, loan tax credits, and sponsorships. Additionally, Ms. Wilks has directly managed local government budgets of 40 million in general operating funds and identified over 5.7 million local government operational costs. Ms. Wilks holds a BS in Family, Child and and Consumer Sciences from Florida State University and a Masters of Public Administration from the University of North Florida and professional credentials in community real estate development, contract management and grants management. Are you excited for our conversation?

Chyla Graham:

Hi Cherrise, how are you?

Cherrise Wilks:

I'm doing good. How are you?

Chyla Graham:

I am good. So we are with Cherrise Wilks Affinity Consulting Group NEFL. So what I would love to start off our episodes with is what are you celebrating? So it could be something from the last week, the last year, anything that you're like, yo, I'm really trying to celebrate that.

Cherrise Wilks:

Um, let's see. Currently what I'm celebrating is coming off of a weekend of having rest and sleep and fun with a friend and, yeah, I had a lot of fun this weekend outside of that, business related. We have actually worked with one of our government clients and got some tentative, good news last week that we will get our largest grant award ever. So we're just kinda waiting on the official paperwork before making that announcement. So yeah, a good way to end the week.

Chyla Graham:

Oh, yay. Tell people more about yourself. Like how could they connect with you? So if people are listening, where do you want them to find you?

Cherrise Wilks:

Okay. So, my name is Cherrise Wilks. I am the President and CEO of Affinity Consulting Group, Northeast Florida NEFL. I own a women and minority owned management consulting firm of 10 years. We pretty much help governments, businesses and nonprofits who lack proper organizational structure and help them achieve multiple revenue streams for their programs and their projects. We assist them with research, analytics, development of plan planning documents, as well as helping them secure public and private funding. We develop disaster recovery plans for those institutes as well. And we found that a lot of our clients were also having some problems managing any funding that we were able to help them get in. So we also do the project management for them as well on the backend. Our clients have seen an increase in profits. They have secured or really reclaim their time and they get to continue to operate in their zone of genius for their own clients by hiring us.

So, that's kind of a quick little elevator pitch for the company. We currently have a couple of government contracts and we're working on doing more training for businesses and nonprofits to make sure that they're poised to have their ducks in a row and their paperwork in order and their organization's structure properly so that they can secure additional revenues, which are currently needed in our current recession. So, please definitely follow us. We also have an educational arm that we're launching, that educational arm is going to be a Academy where I'm bringing my friends, colleagues basically experts in their own fields to come and basically teach classes on everything from business credit, to securing funding for a series, a seed funding for businesses to us talking about working capital, access to capital the whole nine yards.

It's basically gonna be everything about funding. We want to be able to teach other people the things that we have learned as experts, as women, as people of color, and then make sure that other individuals are able to access the same services and the same funding that we have been successful in securing. So, um,we're launching that as well with those classes and we're getting kicked off with a few of them already. I've started teaching some classes for some entities recently, but you can follow us on Instagram at the fundfinders. So that's the fund finders with S and then also follow us on Facebook and LinkedIn at Affinity Consulting Group. Or you can find us with the short handle @ACGFLCO.

Chyla Graham:

All right. Thank you. How did you get into this work though?

Cherrise Wilks:

How did I get into this work? So, I'll try to shorten up the story, but essentially, Affinity was born from a series of three dreams that I started having back in grad school. In 2006, I told a classmate about it, kept having the same recurring dream about creating a business, starting out with grants, and then it was going to grow into this consulting firm. And then I was going to be able to hire staff. I had never ran a business, not officially. I've done babysitting and kind of did some side hustles when I was a kid, but that was about it. I was in grad school. I was getting my masters in public administration. My career path at that time was to become a city manager. So I was climbing up the ladders through state and local governments.

This dream just kept coming. I didn't do anything with it besides tell my classmates and then even while working for local governments, I had one of the mayor staff members, chief of staff come to me while I was working in the finance department, over in Jacksonville, Florida. She came and basically said, Hey, we'd like for you to create a centralized grants office for the entire city if anyone knows Jacksonville's consolidated city county. So that is a huge undertaking. I looked at her and started laughing and I told her I had no clue how to write grants. I had no clue how to run an office of that size. They picked the wrong person. She basically told me that she felt that I could do it. So it's kind of like, how do you say no to the mayor? So I went ahead and did it, and that kind of sparked my career with being able to combine my strengths, which are strategic planning with my love of finance and money and tap into my unknown skill with proposal writing, grant writing and utilizing that with my ability to just bring people into the room and get them together to create win-win solutions. So, yeah, I've just kind of basically ran with this with my career.

Chyla Graham

Very cool. And just before we take our first break, why is it that you decided, hey, I want to include nonprofits in this. Why not just say, Okay, we're gonna stick with the government.

Cherrise Wilks:

So my business started out working with nonprofits. Since I do have a government career and currently still kind of have one due to ethics and just minimizing conflicts of interests. I was not able to work and go after other government contracts at that time. So I actually started working with nonprofits first, and helping nonprofits to double their revenues between Jacksonville, Central Florida, and worked with those nonprofits there helping them with everything from developing strategic plans, working on some fundraising goals, capital plans, and of course, securing grants, and looking at financials and just building community partnerships. So it was easier for me to start out that way. And then over time, as my career shifted, and I eventually left working for the government full time, I was able to concentrate in these other areas and secure additional contracts, longer term contracts, versus working on project by project based communities.

Chyla Graham:

So Cherrisse, it's your time to shine. So I'd love to hear what's different about working with you and why, why nonprofits are just like, man, I was not prepared for that, but I'm glad she brought it up.

Cherrise Wilks:

Okay. So what's different about working with Affinity Consulting Group? umber one, I have been carefully curating the team around me as well. Yes, you would get access to me. I am the owner and the founder. However, I do have a great team who also has a wide variety of skill sets from running large organizations. I think us having that experience of running large organizations and departments and operations helps us understand how to create something from the ground up and build it to something larger. One of the things also with the team that I have built is we are all credentialed project managers, contract managers, and grant professionals. So we do have certifications and licensures, which means that we understand the full entire life cycle from research all the way to close out and dealing with auditors on any of these types of projects and closing them out and basically starting them from inception and closing out the project and ending the project and moving on to the next one.

So we do bring that skill level with us and I think that that is an added addition. Whereas if you were working with some other consultants, they may have what I like to call blinders and they know their niche. They may not be as well versed on looking at the organizational organization from a high level. And so that can sometimes lead you to end up having to hire additional people, to get all of the services and the things that you want. We tend to operate more on a full service basis. So I think that that's an added value and then we have worked in all sectors, public and private nonprofit. We sit on boards of nonprofits. We volunteered with nonprofits, so we really understand the heart and soul of what it is that you're trying to do to effectuate community change.

Chyla Graham:

Okay. And what is it that they're looking for? Like when are they just looking for, Oh, we need someone to help manage our grants. Are they saying like, Oh, what's the bigger question, your answering, I guess.

Cherrise Wilks:

So I'll just say like a lot of the people who come to me, it's kind of two buckets. So on one hand, a lot of individuals have already been through quite a few consultants and they haven't seen any results in transformation. So they're frustrated and by that point they may not necessarily have a large budget. I will certainly meet with them as well as have another staff member meet. We have an intake process. So we meet with them to see what it is that they're actually trying to do and where it is that they want to go. Sometimes I find that many owners have not thought about the end goal in mind, they are looking at what they can do today just to survive and in order to really benefit your clients the most, you have to think about the longer term picture and then what action steps you need to take to get there now.

Cherrise Wilks:

Then what do you need to do in a year, three years, five years and so that's where our background in strategic planning kind of comes into place. We do pull that out of you during an intake process and an interview with us so that we really try to understand what your goals are and what you're trying to do long-term and we don't mind giving suggestions of things we think that you should try or do or partnerships that you should pursue. So, I think oftentimes what most organizations may miss when they come to a firm like ours is they are looking at a project based activity instead of expecting to work with us in a larger scale or longer term capacity. And we're more of that firm that handles activities for a bigger, longer term type capacity. We will work with you if it's project-based, but trust me, by the time you work with us, you're going to end up being a long-term client.

Chyla Graham:

No, I love that because you have to know where it is you're trying to go. Like, I'm always just like, well, I could give you an answer, but I don't know if this is the right answer. If I don't actually know like, well, in three years, what was the goal? Did you always want to be the only person here? Oh, well we should talk about that here, before it gets out of hand. So I love that idea of saying, like, tell us where you want to be, and we can help build those steps in.

Cherrise Wilks:

Exactly.

Chyla Graham:

Well, I guess the next natural route to go then is like, what type of organizations is it that you work with? So, I understand the sectors, but is there like a size, especially for nonprofits since that is, most of the people will be listening to this podcast. So what about those?

Cherisse Wilks:

So, I do set aside some time throughout the year to work with startups either on a planning capacity or help them with one or two projects. So size typically has not mattered, cause I won't say that I don't work with any organizations who were between zero to three years old. That's not the case. It really will depend on the availability of myself and my staff. We tend to have a little bit more time later in the fall for those types of one time projects. For right now where our firm is, we currently have longer-term multi-year contracts with the government entities and also with businesses as well. So a lot of these businesses are still considered small, you know, by SBAs standards, but even for the nonprofits, but they typically have revenues over 50,000 or at least six speakers.

Chyla Graham:

If people are not watching on the screen, we are both black people. One of the questions I started asking was, Hey, especially for my white counterparts, what black led organizations have they worked with before? Just so we can understand some of the cultural context and what may be missing, but for you, with your experience being, like you said, you run a business that is minority and women owned. What are some of the things that you see that you're like, I know I've learned this because of my position, but other people could benefit if they had just had to put this together in the way that I see the world. Does that make sense?

Cherisse Wilks:

It does. So one of the things that I stress with everyone, especially when you're talking about large-scale community change, I've had to do this even working within government. We have a large project that needs to happen and there are multiple stakeholders at the table. First, I would say whatever program or project you're working on, don't do it alone. Nothing is done alone. You need a team, you need other stakeholders to be there with you. And then especially if you were talking about funding that with anybody else's money, besides your own, that comes from your pocket that comes with, you need to have other stakeholders at the table.

You need to build a relationship with them. You need to build that trust there. You need to be good stewards of their money that they may give towards your project. You need to build trust within the community. And so I would say for any organization, whether you're black, white, whatever the key is, is to talk to people, get to know and understand who they are, what motivates them, that type of thing, and truly build a relationship with them where you're actually interested in helping them and serving them.

If you go into any situation with a mind of service, first, the universe, My God, whatever always provides because the end goal is that you're not doing this for yourself. What you're doing for the public is not for ego stroke. It is not to get paid. It is honestly to help and serve others. And if you keep that in mind and actually add value while building these relationships, the rest will come. And so I employ anyone. We can stay within our own communities. That's great, but you still need to understand how to work outside of your community and with other minority groups, other groups led by different genders. You need to just be a people person and understand how to work together and that yields the greatest benefit.

Chyla Graham:

Yeah. I love that. The principle of, if you put service first and let your ego go, that is when you're going to see the biggest change and impact. So, all right.

There's a couple of questions about how CNRG works, and I'd love for you to be able to share one tool because here, we think of how do we help people, their tools, their priorities. For you, what is one tool that you wish more nonprofits took advantage of or tried to use?

Cherrise Wilks:

For nonprofits, I would say at a minimum, in terms of your strategic planning documents, start out by creating a logic model for the programs that you plan to build. Then, the second thing is even though you are a nonprofit, you are able to earn revenue.

Create a business canvas, which is a one-page document that spells out your business model. You need both to be effective. Your organization has to understand it's great to go after grants, but the grants landscape has been changing for the past 12 years, and it's getting harder and harder, tougher and tougher to have people part ways with their money. So you need to focus on other ways to earn revenue into your organization through either fundraising or helping empower your participants to empower themselves or be a part of the organization or whatever the case may be. So, whether you sell some things that the participants make and provide as a part of the nonprofit, that's a way for you to earn revenue. Let them run a store. If you create meals or that sort of thing, those can be sold to the public. Just think outside of the box in terms of where you receive your funds from.

Grants really should not be more than 50%. Honestly, I feel like they should be less than 50%, but they shouldn't be more than 50% of your total operating budget. So, these are things that haven't changed over time, and I think organizations need to keep that in mind so that if a funder decides to change their priorities for the year like we're experiencing now with COVID-19 and the political unrest or just, we'll say civil unrest that's happening with persons of color. They change their priorities on a whim, and your organization needs to be prepared for that by being diverse and having a diverse revenue stream. So, at least, start out by plotting your journey with a logic model and that business canvas, so those are the two tools.

Chyla Graham:

Thank you. Last but not least, I want to go behind the scenes for Affinity Consulting Group. Before I let you go, what is a podcast that has helped you grow, and one piece of advice that has helped you grow as a business leader?

Cherrise Wilks:

Let's see. Podcast... Honestly, at this current moment, I am thinking longer term about how to use the company to move into community and real estate development. That's a bigger term goal in terms of the business growing. We've got our service where we provide consulting services. We will have our training academy through The Fund Finders Academy. Then ultimately the biggest goal is to also be able to do community development projects, through housing and other types of activities. So right now, I kind of listened to a lot of real estate podcasts. The BiggerPockets is a big one. So that's one.

Then personally, what has changed my life? I would probably say just recognizing that I can't do it all. So I now start out my day actively working on meditation and mindfulness to keep me still before the beginning of the morning, so that I'm poised to be successful during the rest of the day. Then I also just changed my environment, in terms of who I follow, what I read, what I listen to, the music that I listen to, that type of thing. It definitely has to have more positivity to it.

If I need a log off of social media for the day, I do that. I don't watch the news for the day. If it comes to that. Then from there, I can create my to-do list. Some people have one thing they focus on, I make it three, and those are the three things I cross off my list for the day, and that's it.

Chyla Graham:

I love it. I am also a big fan of that and so Cherrise, I know you have a packed day ahead of you. Thank you for your time. Talk to you later.

Thanks for tuning in to another episode of The Nonprofit Ace Podcast. 

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