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Cornerstone and Foundation: How Governance and Risk Assessment Fortify Your BSA/AML and OFAC Program

Your BSA/AML and OFAC compliance program needs a guiding structure and a robust foundation in order to stand tall, be strong and prove resilient against the evils of financial crime, money laundering and terrorist financing. That’s where governance and risk assessment come in. Think of them as the cornerstone and foundation of your compliance program, working together to safeguard your institution from potential abuse by bad actors, regulatory scrutiny and reputational damage.

Jay Postma, CAMS, CFCS, President with MSB Compliance notes that, “Governance is critical to enable financial institutions to effectively mitigate their financial crime risks.  Many financial institutions have not given sufficient attention to the role of governance in risk mitigation. Without active involvement of the Board of Directors and meaningful governance, the financial institution is at risk of operating outside of its risk appetite.”

This article delves into how sound governance underpins the development and maintenance of a detailed risk assessment, and how the symbiotic relationship between governance and risk assessment helps strengthen an institution’s compliance program. We will also highlight key risks associated with governance in financial institutions and outline best practices to mitigate these risks.

Cornerstone:  Governance Sets the Direction

Imagine a cornerstone as the first and most important stone laid in a building’s foundation. It sets the direction, determines the overall structure, and defines the core principles upon which the building is constructed. Similarly, governance represents the guiding principles and framework that establish the direction and priorities of your compliance program. It outlines the roles and responsibilities of different stakeholders, ensures transparency and accountability, and promotes a culture of risk awareness, mitigation and compliance.  Without these traits a financial institution will not survive long term let alone thrive.

So, just as a building’s cornerstone establishes its direction and integrity, effective governance sets the tone for your institution’s risk-based compliance program. It shapes its principles, structure, and accountability, ensuring:

  • Standard Setting for Risk Assessment:  Corporate governance plays a pivotal role in framing a detailed and tailored risk assessment. It ensures that the risk assessment process is not just a periodic, isolated compliance activity but instead is a strategic tool integrated into the business model.
  • Strategic Alignment: Board involvement, particularly with external members, brings fresh perspectives and expertise that helps make sure your program fits with your business goals and plans.
  • Regulatory and Best Practices Alignment:  Effective governance ensures your program adheres to relevant BSA/AML and OFAC regulations, but also incorporates best practices and industry standards. This proactive approach helps stay ahead of evolving threats and regulatory changes.
  • Culture of Compliance:  By making compliance a central part of your company’s culture, leadership sets the example.  Governance sets the tone for how everyone within the organisation approaches risk management and regulatory requirements. This creates a sense of ownership and responsibility, leading to better overall adherence.
  • Continuous Improvement: Regular reviews and feedback from Independent Reviews and internal audits keep your program up-to-date and effective. 
  • Transparency and Accountability: Clear lines of communication between compliance, the Board, and senior management cultivate trust and help to better ensure timely action on identified risks by contributing to mutual accountability.
  • Sustainability of an Effective Compliance Program:  Strong governance is instrumental in maintaining a compliance program that is not only reactive to current risks but also proactive in anticipating emerging threats. It involves regular updates to policies and procedures, continuous training of staff, and adapting to regulatory changes.

Foundation:  Risk Assessment Built Upon the Cornerstone of Governance

Think of the foundation as the solid base upon which the entire building rests. It needs to be strong, stable, and carefully designed to support the building’s weight and withstand external forces. Likewise, your risk assessment serves as the foundational document for your compliance program. It identifies, analyses, and prioritises the specific money laundering and financial crime risks your institution faces based on your customer base, products, and operations. This informed understanding of your risk profile allows you to tailor your compliance efforts to effectively address the most relevant threats.

A robust governance structure ensures your assessment isn’t a generic, off-the-shelf, once and done document. Instead, it reflects the unique vulnerabilities and strengths of your institution, customer base, and operations that change over time. How?

  • Independent Board Member Expertise: Having an outside Board member can significantly mitigate risks.  And having a Board member with meaningful outside BSA/AML and OFAC knowledge contributes to informed oversight and improved strategic direction.
  • Compliance Committee Engagement: An active Compliance Committee, with external representation, regularly reviews and challenges the risk assessment, preventing assumptions and blind spots.
  • Transparent Tracking of Findings and Recommendations: Don’t let open findings and recommendations gather dust. Create a clear, visible system to track progress on addressing concerns from internal, external, and regulatory reviews. Consider ways in which findings, recommendations or management identified issues may indicate gaps in the risk assessment, policies, procedures or controls; update accordingly.  Remember that problems that aren’t dealt with can grow into bigger issues, hurting trust and compliance success.
  • Timely Identification of Emerging Risks:  Meaningful participation by representatives of different stakeholders will help in timely identification of changes in the business model, operations, and environment improving the entity’s ability to timely identify, assess, and communicate impacts on the risk profile and improve the quality of risk mitigation decisions.

A Symbiotic Relationship

Governance provides the guiding principles and framework that guide the development and implementation of a well-designed risk assessment, ensuring it is comprehensive and relevant. In turn, the risk assessment informs and strengthens governance by highlighting areas for improvement and resource allocation. This interplay drives continuous improvement and facilitates ongoing effectiveness through:

  • Informed decision-making: Board members, equipped with insights from the risk assessment, can make strategic decisions about resource allocation, training needs, and technological investments.
  • Culture of compliance: Embedding risk awareness and mitigation into the core of your organisation fosters a proactive approach to compliance at all levels.
  • Resilience in the face of change: Regular updates to both governance and risk assessment ensure your program stays adaptable and resilient to ever-changing threats and regulations.
  • For an effective BSA/AML and OFAC compliance program, both elements are essential:
  • Without a strong governance structure, your risk assessment might be flawed or misdirected, leading to ineffective controls and potential regulatory issues.
  • And without a comprehensive and accurate risk assessment, your governance efforts might be misaligned or focused on the wrong areas, leaving vulnerabilities unaddressed.

By prioritising both governance and risk assessment, you can build a solid and adaptable compliance program that effectively protects your institution from financial crime risks, fosters a culture of risk awareness and risk mitigation, and ensures you meet regulatory requirements.

Governance Risks and Mitigation Strategies

  1. Lack of Diverse Perspectives:  A homogeneous Board may lack the breadth of experience needed to foresee and address complex compliance issues.

    Mitigation Strategy: Appoint external Board members who bring diverse experiences and insights, particularly in BSA/AML and OFAC matters, to enrich the Board’s deliberations and decisions.
  1. Insufficient Board Engagement and Oversight:  Gaps between policy and implementation may occur due to insufficient involvement of the Board in BSA/AML and OFAC risk management.

    Mitigation Strategy: Ensure active involvement of external Board members in oversight functions, and have them serve on or lead the Compliance Committee. Their independence enhances accountability and reinforces the importance of compliance throughout the organisation.
  1. Lack of Accountability and Transparency:  A key risk in governance is the absence of clear accountability and transparency, especially in tracking and addressing findings from independent, regulatory, and internal reviews.

    Mitigation Strategy: Establish a transparent mechanism for tracking not just the actions taken to address findings but also progress on recommendations. This approach helps ensure that recommendations are appropriately considered and do not turn into findings over time.

Best Practices for Leaders and Compliance Teams

Governance isn’t about ticking boxes; it’s about proactive vigilance. Here are some key areas to focus on:

  • Independent Board Representation: A key aspect of governance is the involvement of outside Board members, especially in oversight roles on the Board and any Compliance Committee.  External board members and committee representatives bring valuable objectivity, fresh perspectives and expertise, vital for understanding the unique risks faced by the institution and for ensuring that the risk assessment is comprehensive and well tailored. Protect their independence by providing robust training and ensuring access to unfiltered information.  Appoint external Board members to the Compliance Committee and leverage their objective perspectives for enhanced oversight. 
  • Board Communication: Don’t underestimate the power of education. Regularly brief the Board on the evolving BSA/AML and OFAC landscape, the program’s effectiveness,  potential risks and challenges faced. Transparency builds trust and helps ensure alignment with your compliance strategy.  Equip Board members with knowledge, focusing on their oversight role and the importance of a risk-based approach.
  • Active board engagement: Involve board members, particularly those with external expertise, in reviewing and challenging the risk assessment and program effectiveness.
  • Clear and Transparent Lines of Communication: Establish unambiguous lines of communication between compliance officers and the Board.  Encourage a culture of continuous improvement, where feedback from audits and reviews is actively used for enhancing compliance measures.  Regularly inform the Board of  vulnerabilities, actions taken, and progress in addressing findings, recommendations and management identified gaps. 
  • Culture of Accountability: Foster a culture where ownership and responsibility are clearly defined. Individuals should be empowered to raise concerns and report potential issues without fear of reprisal.
  • Technology as an ally: Utilise advanced monitoring and reporting tools to support Board oversight and compliance efforts.

Sharing Knowledge Helps Strengthen Culture of Compliance

Sharing key findings of the risk assessment over time as it changes with the Board and senior management reinforces the importance of compliance across the organisation. It sends a clear message that risk management is not an isolated function, but a core principle woven into the fabric of your institution.


By prioritising governance, you’re not just ticking regulatory boxes; you’re building a culture of proactive risk mitigation, informed decision-making, and long-term resilience. Effective governance is the cornerstone upon which a strong, adaptable, risk-based and future-proof BSA/AML and OFAC program is built.

Compliance isn’t merely about meeting minimum standards; it’s about protecting your institution, your customers, and your reputation. By making governance the cornerstone of your program, you’ll be well-positioned to navigate the challenges and reap the rewards of a proactive compliance culture.

You’ll be fostering a culture of integrity, transparency, proactive risk management, and effective compliance, ultimately protecting your institution, your customers, and your reputation. Effective governance and a comprehensive risk assessment are the cornerstone and foundation upon which a future-proof BSA/AML and OFAC program thrives.

If you haven’t recently reviewed your governance practices and risk assessment, perhaps now is a good time for you to do so.

Partnering for Success

Arctic Intelligence provides cutting-edge technology that empowers financial institutions to conduct effective and efficient risk assessments. Their platform streamlines processes, supports compliance with regulatory requirements, and enables ongoing risk management. MSB Compliance Inc. is proud to partner with Arctic Intelligence to bring this innovative solution to the U.S. MSB and fintech market. 

Together, we are committed to helping financial institutions build a strong foundation for success – a foundation built on effective risk assessment and driven by an unwavering commitment to compliance.

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