You don’t get compliance by talking about compliance.

compliance imagine

We just wrapped up a nine-month project with an organization focused on increasing compliance related to procurement, ethics, and the safeguarding of vulnerable people. The organization has policies, and our goal was to increase the rate by which people followed those policies.

This wasn’t the first compliance-related project we have worked on. There have been the efforts to increase how nonprofits register as charities with the state, file the appropriate state taxes, apply for the right liquor license, and classify employees and contractors, among others. There are a lot of rules to follow. Our job as nonprofit educators is to create tools and experiences that encourage compliance.

Many compliance-focused efforts are built around the belief that people will do something if they know about it. Let me suggest four other ways to increase compliance for the long term.

1. Stand in their shoes.

We have written curriculum related to the work of at least five state agencies. From the point of view of each agency, their rules are important and clear. From the point of view of the small nonprofit executive director, however, state compliance rules are noise emanating from every direction. It is hard to know which agency is responsible for what and how to move forward. When time is short, it is easy to miss a deadline. That is why we start a compliance project standing in the shoes of the person we are trying to influence. The questions you ask and priorities you focus on are different when you take the point of view of the person implementing the rules.

2. Don’t make them think.

Part of standing in their shoes is understanding that they are not thinking about this topic 24/7. The easier we can make the task, the more likely they are to comply. In our recent ethics curriculum, for example, we wanted bosses to include conversations about ethics in their staff meetings. While ethical behavior may seem black and white in the abstract, there is a ton of gray when you talk about real situations. Even our subject matter experts went around and around for a while on one case, which led to a fantastic case study! If conversations start to become hard for bosses to manage, they are going to skip them. They have enough other agenda items to cover in that next staff meeting. We need to make it easy by providing the discussion guide and talking points. In other cases, we need to provide the checklist and phone numbers to call when they get stuck. We need to do the thinking so they don’t have to.

3. Go upstream.

If we are concerned about safeguarding issues—the protection of vulnerable people—we need to go upstream and make sure we are designing programs that prevent problems in the first place. We need to make sure we are hiring well. If we are troubled by how well our staff is adhering to our procurement policies, we need to go upstream and understand how work happens and vendors are sourced. If we are worried that nonprofits aren’t following liquor law, we need to go upstream to the issue—that committees often organize events, not individuals. When we go upstream, we de-silo the issue. We can teach the policy, but ultimate compliance happens in the flow of work.

4. Make it enjoyable.

The easiest trainings to deliver are those related to law, finance, or compliance. Participants have very low expectations. They are expecting to be talked at about numbers or rules. Cue the PowerPoint slides with a ton of bullet points. We can surprise them by talking about people, connection, stories, and practical applications of our content. We can be human in acknowledging that compliance issues can be hard, inconsistent, and sometimes in competition with what we are trying to achieve as an organization. To be clear—when I suggest making it enjoyable, I don’t mean inappropriate joke-making or point-less entertainment. I am not making a game out of embezzlement or human trafficking. I mean that people feel the deeper purpose of spending time on this issue beyond following a compliance rule. They understand their role in making a difference and feel valued.

All of these ideas are more difficult than adding a compliance checkbox to an HR profile. They take leadership and strategy. It’s worth it. The result will be more compliance and stronger organizations.

Published by Nancy

I work at the intersection of learning, nonprofits, and leadership. I am a teacher, instructional designer, and nonprofit person who has worn every hat possible. I regular write, speak, and consult on learning strategy, design, and leadership.

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