How Sanctions Compliance Affects Non-Profit Organizations


Non-profit organizations (NPOs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often engage in humanitarian or development work in regions subject to economic or trade sanctions. Governments use sanctions to restrict or prohibit transactions with certain countries, entities, or individuals deemed threats to national security or foreign policy.

This article explores how sanctions compliance impacts NPOs and NGOs and the consequences of violating sanctions. It also discusses effective sanctions compliance programs for NPOs and NGOs.

Legal consequences

Sanctions violations can result in severe civil or criminal penalties. Penalties range from fines to asset freezes and imprisonment, depending on jurisdiction and the nature of the violation. For example, the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), responsible for enforcing U.S. sanctions, can impose fines up to $1 million per violation for individuals and $20 million per violation for entities. Sanctions violations may also trigger legal actions by other authorities or affected parties.

Reputational damage

Sanctions violations can harm the credibility and trustworthiness of NPOs and NGOs. This affects their ability to attract and retain donors, partners, beneficiaries, and employees. Reputational damage undermines the legitimacy and influence of NPOs and NGOs in advocacy or policy work. A study by Diligent revealed that reputational damage leads to reduced profits, difficulty securing investment, increased cost of capital, and challenges in talent recruitment or retention. Negative media coverage or public scrutiny can further harm their image or reputation.

Operational disruption

Sanctions violations disrupt service delivery and programs by NPOs and NGOs, impacting their impact and sustainability. Violations lead to blocked or delayed transactions, revoked licenses or authorizations, restricted access to markets or resources, and increased costs or risks. For example, they hinder NPOs and NGOs from providing aid or assistance to sanctioned countries or regions, receiving funding or donations from sanctioned entities or individuals, collaborating with sanctioned partners or intermediaries, or using sanctioned financial institutions or channels.

Implementing Effective Sanctions Compliance Programs for NPOs

To mitigate risks, NPOs and NGOs should implement effective sanctions compliance programs tailored to their activities, contexts, and stakeholders. According to OFAC’s guidance on compliance programs, key elements include:

  1. Management commitment: Designate a sanctions compliance officer responsible for overseeing the program. The officer should ensure alignment with the organization’s mission and values. Adequate authority, resources, expertise, and support from senior management are crucial. Regular communication with staff and stakeholders about the importance of compliance and expectations is essential.
  2. Risk assessment: Conduct periodic risk assessments to identify and prioritize exposure to sanctions risks based on factors like location, services or programs, funding sources, partners or beneficiaries, and transactions or interactions. Assessments should consider the potential impact on legal status, reputation, and impact. Document and regularly update assessments to reflect changes in laws, regulations, risks, or circumstances.
  3. Engaging legal counsel: Seek legal counsel with sanctions compliance expertise. They provide advice on applicable laws, potential risks, and consequences of violations, and best practices. Counsel can assist in applying for licenses or authorizations and responding to inquiries or investigations.


Sanctions compliance is vital for NPOs’ and NGOs’ operations, affecting legal status, reputation, and impact. Effective compliance programs aligned with mission and values reduce exposure to risks and enhance the ability to achieve humanitarian or development goals.

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