Sucessful Nonprofits: Categorize and Triage "Fire" Nonprofit Emergencies

Stop Being Overwhelmed: Categorize and Triage Your Fires

by goldenburggroup

Stop Being Overwhelmed: Categorize and Triage Your Fires

by goldenburggroup

by goldenburggroup

As a leader or a manager, people bring fires to you every day:

          • “The restroom is out of toilet paper” 
          • “Two clients were in a loud altercation in the lobby”
          • “I have had it with John – I don’t trust him, can’t work with him and need you to fix it”
          • “Look at the cash flow, we might not make payroll next month”
          • “The annual grant report is due to our largest funder tomorrow – please review and sign it”
          • “There’s an emergency meeting to discuss our long term strategy in five minutes”
          • “Half the board and three members of senior leadership team just resigned”

If you think back on the past week, I would bet that someone has brought at least one issue every day that genuinely feels like a fire to them. And it’s human nature for us to jump up and take action when we hear the words “Help! Fire!”

As a leader and manager, though, there are very few fires that should distract us from the important and strategic work before us. For this reason, I sometimes create a “fire dashboard” and categorize my fires accordingly:

A Match

The vast majority of fires in our organization are actually just matches. A restroom being out of toilet paper, an angry client, or staff who feel unappreciated are good examples. These are very small fires that are easily blown out by someone else. But they could start even bigger fires if left alone. All team members should feel empowered to blow out the lit matches throughout the organization. There’s likely no need to report the vast majority of match fires up the chain of command.

Dumpster Fires

If you’ve ever seen a fire in a dumpster, you know that it’s relatively self-contained but someone has to step up to put the fire out. A loud altercation in the lobby is an example of a dumpster fire. The person staffing your front desk or a manager needs to de-escalate the situation and return everything to normal operations. Unless physical violence occurred, this situation should be reported to the staff member leading operations and does not need to be reviewed by the executive director. Dumpster fires are an early leadership opportunity for non-management staff and first-line managers. 

Car Fire

Car fires are dangerous because they contain combustible materials and innocent bystanders might get hurt. Car fires are best managed by first-line managers and middle managers. An example is an interpersonal conflict between two colleagues, and their supervisor(s) can usually handle the situation. The chief executive should probably be notified, but can often remain uninvolved unless one of the colleagues is a direct report. 

House Fire

House fires threaten a significant portion of the organization. Strained cashflow that might prevent funding payroll in a month is definitely a house fire. In most circumstances, house fires can be controlled and extinguished in a reasonable period of time. All senior leadership team members work together and plan how to extinguish house fires. Some trusted, experienced managers should also take part. This teams needs to project confidence, put themselves at risk before other staff and keep the situation confidential unless it becomes clear the fire cannot be extinguished.

Forest Fire

Forest fires endanger the very existence of an organization. They are often a series of connected fires that didn’t start overnight. If half your board and the majority of your senior leadership team resigns, you are experiencing a forest fire. The first course of action with any forest fire is to control it and keep it from spreading. Only then can the board and staff leadership team develop a plan for putting it out.

No fire

Often, team members scream “fire” when no fire is present. If someone suddenly realizes that the agency’s strategy has fatal flaws and invites you to an emergency strategy meeting, they haven’t asked you to be a firefighter. Meetings of this nature should be planned in advance, with the necessary preparation to ensure their success. 


In triaging the fires, it’s important to understand:

          • Which fires you should be handling directly
          • Which you should delegate to other staff
          • Which need the involvement of those above you. 

Being clear about the fires you must address directly will save you weeks of time every year. Check out this article or some ideas on empowering your staff to make decisions and help handle fires.

Additionally, check out the following Successful Nonprofits® resources if this post was helpful:

Podcast: Share Power to Strengthen Your Board with Mike Burns and Judy Frieworth

Feel free to share your thoughts!

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