How to Define Your Organization’s Risk Appetite in 8 Steps

  • March 28, 2024

Emily Bonnie

Senior Content Marketing Manager at Secureframe


Rob Gutierrez

Senior Compliance Manager at Secureframe

Defining your organization’s risk appetite involves asking the right questions.

What are your goals? How much risk is inherent in your path to achieving them? What are the potential rewards, and are they worth the risks?

Understanding your risk appetite is about balancing caution with ambition, stability with innovation, and threats with opportunities. It's not just about how much risk you can take, but also about knowing the types of risks that align with your strategic vision.

This article dives into the essentials of risk appetite, explaining how it fits into your organization’s overall risk management approach and sharing a step-by-step process for defining and implementing the appropriate risk appetite for your business.

What is risk appetite?

Risk appetite is how much risk a business is willing to take on in pursuit of its goals. This "appetite" guides decisions like investing in new technologies, entering unfamiliar markets, or launching innovative products.

Understanding risk appetite is crucial because it ensures a business takes on challenges that match its capacity to manage potential setbacks. It's like knowing whether you're equipped for a sprint or a marathon; this clarity around your risk culture helps you allocate resources wisely, make informed decisions, and steer your company toward its strategic objectives while keeping residual risks in check. 

Risk appetite vs risk tolerance

Risk appetite and risk tolerance are closely related concepts, but they serve different purposes for risk management.

Risk appetite is the amount and type of risk a business is willing to take on to achieve its goals. It reflects the company's strategic objectives and the level of risk it's prepared to accept in pursuit of growth, innovation, or market expansion.

Risk tolerance, on the other hand, is the specific amount of risk the company can bear before it needs to implement mitigation tactics. It's often defined in quantitative terms such as financial thresholds, performance metrics, or compliance limits. Risk tolerance is about the company's capacity to withstand negative outcomes without suffering unacceptable damage, and acts as a boundary within the broader scope defined by the risk appetite.

To put it another way, risk appetite is like setting out on an ocean voyage and accepting the risk of navigating through a few storms to reach your destination. Risk tolerance is about knowing how severe a storm you can weather before that voyage becomes too dangerous. Which storms are light enough to sail through on course, and which do you need to navigate around to ensure the ship stays afloat?

Risk appetite examples

Here are a few examples of risk appetite across different aspects of a business:

Product development: A high risk appetite may involve investing in cutting-edge, innovative products that could redefine the market — but also have a high chance of failure. A conservative risk appetite would favor incremental improvements to existing products, focusing on established markets with predictable returns.

Operational decisions: Companies more open to risk might adopt aggressive growth strategies, such as rapid scaling or adopting new, unproven technologies. Risk-averse companies might prioritize operational efficiency, cost reduction, and minimizing debt.

Corporate governance and compliance: A company with a high risk tolerance might operate in regulatory gray areas to gain a competitive edge, accepting the potential for legal challenges or noncompliance penalties. A risk-averse organization would strictly adhere to regulatory requirements and industry best practices, even if it means forgoing certain opportunities.

Human resources and talent management: A high risk approach involves hiring unconventional talent or investing in a diverse and innovative workforce that could bring fresh ideas but may not fit the traditional corporate mold. A conservative strategy would focus on candidates with proven track records and industry experience, valuing stability and reliability.

Market expansion: Companies with a high risk appetite might enter new, untested markets or regions with significant cultural, political, or economic differences. Those with a low risk appetite might focus on deepening their penetration in existing markets or expanding into closely related, familiar territories.

Key considerations: Factors that influence risk appetite

Several factors can influence an organization's risk appetite, shaping its decision-making and strategy development.

  • Organizational goals and business objectives: Organizations with aggressive growth targets may have a higher risk appetite, while those focused on stability and steady returns might adopt a more cautious approach.
  • Industry dynamics: The nature and pace of change within an industry can have a significant impact on risk appetite. Industries subject to rapid innovation and change, such as technology, might require a higher risk appetite to spur innovation and keep pace with competitors.
  • Regulatory environment: The regulatory framework governing an organization's operations can significantly affect its risk appetite. Strict regulatory environments, such as those within the healthcare industry, might limit the risks businesses can take.
  • Financial health and resource allocation: Organizations with stronger financial reserves and predictable cash flows may be more willing to engage in risky ventures compared to those with tighter financial constraints.
  • Past experiences: Successes in risky ventures may embolden a company to take more risks, while failures might lead to a more cautious approach.
  • Market position and competitive landscape: Market leaders or companies with unique competitive advantages might be more willing to take risks compared to those in more vulnerable competitive positions.
  • Stakeholder expectations: The expectations of key stakeholders, including investors, customers, and employees, can influence an organization's risk appetite. For example, pressure from investors for short-term returns might lead to a lower risk appetite in terms of long-term investments.
  • Economic and political climate: The broader economic and political environment, including economic cycles, political stability, and geopolitical events, can affect risk appetite. For example, during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, many organizations adopted a more conservative approach in the face of significant volatility.

Risk appetite can also shift over time based on these changing factors, which is why it’s important to revisit and adjust your risk appetite as part of your overall risk management framework

How to define your risk appetite in 8 steps

Determining your organization's risk appetite is a strategic process that’s essential for long-term sustainability. Follow these steps to establish a risk appetite framework that effectively guides better decision-making, supports strategic objectives, and enhances your organization’s operational resilience.

Step 1. Clarify strategic objectives

Begin with a clear understanding of your organization's strategic objectives and goals. Knowing what your organization aims to achieve helps identify the types of risks you might encounter and the level of risk necessary to achieve these goals.

Step 2. Identify and categorize risks

Conduct a risk assessment to identify the different types of risks your organization faces, including operational, financial, strategic, compliance, and reputational risks. Categorizing these risks helps you understand their potential impact and how they might affect your ability to achieve your strategic objectives.

Step 3. Assess risk capacity

Next, you’ll need to evaluate the maximum level of risk your organization can absorb without jeopardizing its survival. Consider financial stability, access to capital, and other resources that can cushion your organization against potential losses.

Step 4. Evaluate risk tolerance

Different from risk appetite, risk tolerance is about how much variability in outcomes your organization is able to accept. If the speed limit (risk appetite) is set at 70 mph, how much are you willing to deviate from that speed (risk tolerance) before hitting either the gas or brakes?

You’ll need to define the thresholds at which key risks become unacceptable and might trigger changes in strategy or day-to-day operations.

Step 5. Consult key stakeholders

Engage with senior management, the board of directors, employees, shareholders, and customers to get valuable insights into risk preferences and expectations, and help balance risk-taking with your organization's foundational commitments and responsibilities.

Step 6. Define risk appetite level

With a clear understanding of strategic objectives, risk types, risk capacity, and risk tolerance, your organization can now define its risk appetite. This usually culminates in a risk appetite statement, which specifies the types of risks facing your organization, including financial risks, operational risks, reputational risks, and strategic risks.

The risk appetite statement also describes the acceptable levels of risk for different activities or decisions, often linking these risk levels to financial metrics, operational capacities, or other quantitative metrics. It outlines who within the organization is responsible for making decisions about risk, monitoring risk levels, and implementing effective risk management processes, as well as periodically reviewing and updating the risk appetite statement itself.

To help you get started on your own risk appetite statement, we’ve created a downloadable template that includes an outline for each section and an example statement for reference.

Step 7. Communicate and integrate into business processes

The risk appetite statement and any related policies must be communicated across the organization to ensure that it’s incorporated into your overall risk management framework. Decision-makers at all levels must understand the boundaries and expectations around risk-taking, so here are some key steps to take to implement your risk appetite into your daily processes and decision-making:

  • Include the risk appetite statement in security awareness training programs and employee onboarding processes to help build and reinforce a risk-aware company culture. This also helps ensure that all employees understand how their actions contribute to risk exposure and how they can make risk-aware decisions.
  • Incorporate risk appetite into strategic planning and decision-making processes. When setting goals and objectives, consider whether they align with the organization's risk appetite and ensure that plans to achieve these goals are within acceptable risk levels.
  • Embed risk appetite considerations into regular risk assessments. Ensure that risks are evaluated not just on their potential impact and likelihood but also on how they fit within the organization's risk appetite.
  • Integrate risk appetite into project management methodologies. Project proposals should include a risk assessment that is evaluated against the organization's risk appetite to ensure that new initiatives align with the company's risk tolerance.

Step 8. Monitor, review, and update

The risk appetite statement should be regularly reviewed and adjusted to reflect any changes in your organization's objectives, market and competitive landscape, regulatory and compliance requirements, or risk profile. This could involve re-evaluating strategic objectives, risk capacity, and tolerance levels to ensure that your organization's risk appetite remains aligned with its overall strategy and operational realities. Ensure any updates to the risk appetite are also reflected in your risk assessment policy and procedures. 

Secureframe’s end-to-end risk management automates risk assessment workflows to give you quick insights into your risk profile, including inherent risk scores. You can assess and document treatment plans, track risks within the risk library, and monitor your risk management program through comprehensive dashboards, making it easier to assess, monitor, document, and review your risk appetite. 

Download: Risk Appetite Worksheet

Download this worksheet to walk through the steps of defining risk appetite and implementing it across your business. The worksheet shares key questions to ask at each step and includes notes sections to help you define the right risk appetite for your business.

Reduce your risk exposure with cybersecurity and compliance automation

Compliance automation software offers a range of features designed to streamline and enhance the enterprise risk management process. By automating manual tasks, solutions like Secureframe can assess and monitor risks, document risk appetite, simplify third-party risk management, improve operational efficiency, and significantly reduce your risk exposure. 

  • End-to-end risk management: Our platform follows the ISO 27005 methodology to effectively assess risks within your environment and help you build a strong security posture. Make informed mitigation decisions and document risk treatment plans to meet criteria for frameworks such as SOC 2, ISO 27001, PCI, and HIPAA. 
  • Comply AI for Risk: Automated risk assessment workflows leverage artificial intelligence to analyze risks within your environment, producing an inherent risk score, proposed treatment, residual risk score, and justifications. 
  • Risk library: Our risk library includes NIST risk scenarios for categories like Fraud, Legal, Finance, and IT, making it easy to add and track risks applicable to your organization. 
  • Risk history: Track changes and view point-in-time snapshots of your risk register to demonstrate to auditors and other stakeholders the steps you’ve taken to reduce risk and strengthen your security posture. You can also link risks to controls to assess residual risk and close any gaps in your risk management program. 
  • Customizability: Tailor our risk management system to your needs, including adjusting the scoring scale, risk score groups, and adding custom tags to categorize risks. 

To learn more about Secureframe’s end-to-end risk management capabilities, schedule a demo with a product expert. 

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How do you define risk appetite?

Risk Appetite is defined as the amount and type of risk an organization is willing to take in order to achieve its goals and objectives. It reflects the organization's attitude towards risk-taking as part of its overall strategy.

What are the 5 levels of risk appetite?

The 5 levels of risk appetite often discussed in enterprise risk management (ERM) literature range from very conservative to very aggressive:

  1. Very Conservative / Risk Averse: Prefers safe, predictable outcomes even if it means lower returns or slower growth. Avoids risk wherever possible.
  2. Conservative / Cautious: Willing to accept some risks but generally prefers stable and secure options with moderate returns.
  3. Moderate / Balanced: Open to taking calculated risks that are balanced with potential rewards. Seeks a reasonable balance between risk and opportunity.
  4. Aggressive / Risk Seeking: Actively seeks out riskier opportunities for potentially higher returns. Willing to accept significant risk for the chance of significant rewards.
  5. Very Aggressive / Highly Risk Seeking: Pursues high-risk opportunities aggressively, prioritizing high returns even at the cost of potential high losses.

What is an example of risk appetite and risk tolerance?

A tech startup has a high risk appetite, aiming to innovate and capture market share quickly. It invests heavily in research and development for cutting-edge technology, understanding that not all projects will succeed but willing to accept losses in pursuit of breakthrough products.

The same tech startup might have a risk tolerance that limits any single project's budget to 10% of its R&D funds to prevent a single failure from jeopardizing the company's financial stability.

What is the difference between risk appetite and risk limit?

Risk Appetite is the overall readiness of an organization to take on risk in pursuit of its objectives. It's a broad, strategic view of the types and aggregate levels of risk the organization is willing to consider.

Risk Limit, often related to risk tolerance, is more specific and operational. It sets the maximum level of risk the organization is willing to accept in particular areas or activities, often quantified by specific thresholds or limits.

What is the NIST definition of risk appetite?

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) doesn't provide a specific risk appetite definition in its publications like NIST SP 800-53 or NIST SP 800-39. However, NIST frameworks emphasize tailoring risk management practices to an organization's risk tolerance, which is closely related to risk appetite, implying an organization's willingness to accept the potential for loss in pursuit of its objectives.

What is the ISO definition of risk appetite?

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), particularly in ISO 31000, defines risk appetite as the "amount and type of risk that an organization is prepared to pursue, retain or take." This standard provides guidelines on risk management principles, framework, and processes, recognizing risk appetite as a key component in setting the context for managing risk.