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Preventing Fires in Your Nonprofit

This article is written by guest author, Deena Englander, founder and CEO of WorkStream Business Systems

Fires are never good. In a nonprofit, frequent “fires” (situations requiring extremely urgent attention) are a sign that you’re likely doing something wrong. It’s letting you know that you’ve missed some steps in organizational planning and that not enough attention has been given to your organizational strategy and resource management. When there are “fires” within your organization, your organizational impact potential diminishes. While no one and no organization is perfect, it’s your job as a leader to prevent urgent “fires” as much as possible.

So how bad are “fires”? As I work with many organizations, I see many trends amongst those that have frequent emergencies that the “safer” organizations don’t have:

  • Employees work in a constant state of stress, which means they don’t do their jobs as well and they get frustrated
  • Productivity is down because employees are often distracted from their core job
  • Turnover rate is higher than average – employees don’t feel “safe” when they come to work
  • There are more mistakes made, especially with detailed tasks
  • It’s a sign that the rest of the system doesn’t work perfectly well, which means the organization is inherently set up for failure

The good news is that you can change this. You can make your environment predictable, comfortable, and safe for your employees. You can give them the tools that they need to succeed, inspire loyalty and confidence, and make them true partners in your organization’s growth and development.

Let’s take a look at the most common types of “fires” in organizations and what you can do to prevent them:

  1. Technology Breaks Down

Every time your computer systems or internet is down, your entire company is at a virtual standstill. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use technology – on the contrary, using technology can automate a lot of processes, prevent mistakes, and give your company an incredible boost. It does mean, though, that you need to be smart about it:

  • Have a good backup system. If your server crashes, you should be able to restore to a recent point in time (experts suggest backups every hour) so you’ll be up and running in no time.
  • Partner with an IT firm that has a good response time. Anything over 4 hours is not responsive enough.
  • Check your software. Make sure the software you use is supported for all users, and that you have the right server speed and internet to use it well. The PCs you’re using should also be running at optimal speed. Invest in more RAM – it makes a huge difference in performance.


  1. There’s a Problem with Your Workflow

Take a good look at the reasons behind each emergency. For every emergency that comes up, see if you can figure out one policy change that you could make to prevent that situation. Very often, the emergency is traceable back to someone who’s supposed to do something but didn’t do it and no one knew about the lapse. Perhaps it was an honest mistake. But those kinds of gaps are lethal to productivity and are fully preventable. Here are a few changes you can make to avoid them:

  • Delegate control to people and systems. If more management and oversight are needed, do it. One person can’t manage the intricacies of more than 10-15 employees’ job details. If you’re supervising more than that, you’ll need to either automate the oversight (project management systems are great for that), incorporate a communication tool (Slack is a good example), or get help. Taking on more than you can handle is a recipe for failure.
  • Perform “safety” inspections. Periodically, throw in a curveball on purpose to your team. See how they handle it, and if the finished product is what you’d like it to be. The result should be that they do the job well and without extra stress. If they don’t pass that test, you’ll need to rethink your system.
  • Communicate Less. This often-overlooked aspect is critical for all organizations. Employees rely on emails for information, which means they get distracted and overwhelmed by the emails that constantly pour in. Emails are hard to trace, and they’re hard to use to retrieve information. People forget to include others or notify someone when completing a crucial task. You need to find a way to automate or streamline a lot of that. Again, it’s all about control – set up a system where it’s easy to collaborate and communicate. Find the right project management and communication tools that will let you do that. The less that needs to be articulated, the more likely it is that people will have the information they need.
  • Leave flex time. There will always be new things to take care of that aren’t in your schedule. Build in time for that so that you don’t end up overwhelmed. If you schedule yourself right, there’s less opportunities for true emergencies to arise.


  1. You’re Not Planning Well

You, as the boss, don’t want to be in the position of creating urgency by asking for things last minute (I call it the ASAP syndrome). It creates a lot of unnecessary tension, and usually, the results you’ll get won’t be as good as something done without that urgency associated with it. Here are some steps you can take to avoid ASAP syndrome:

  • Plan your week. Set aside time at the beginning or end of each week to decide your goals for the following week, and what information or tasks you need from your employees. This will give you time to ask your employees to perform and expect results in a timely but non-ASAP fashion. It also gives you clarity on your week, so your week will be a lot calmer as well.
  • Make your team transparent. If someone is out, or you need to know the status of a project, you need to be able to see that information without bothering anyone. This might be incorporated into your time/project management system.
  • At the end of every week, document what ASAP requests you made that could have been a standard request had you thought about it early enough.

There are lots of steps that you can take to make your organization safe. The end goal is a safe, healthy, and impactful organization, and worth every ounce of planning that you put into it.

Want to talk about the fires in your business? Click here to schedule a time to talk to me.



Guest Author

Deena Englander, founder and CEO of WorkStream Business Systems

Deena specializes in analyzing business workflow and providing optimization consulting. She helps businesses streamline and automate processes, optimize workflow, and gain access to the tools they need to efficiently and effectively run their business. Her expertise is in workflow development, intuitive software, data analysis, business intelligence, and MS Access and SQL Server, and she is a certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt.

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