The notion that "relief alone is not enough" is common to all actors involved in humanitarian crises and their management. This notion was officially framed at the United Nations (UN) in 1991 as a "continuum from relief to rehabilitation and development" and today remains a challenging task in the agenda of international assistance. Despite periodic efforts to understand the problem and to put forward solutions, reviews report a lack of conceptual clarity and little progress. We suggest that one of the reasons is the paucity of efforts to clarify the meaning of the continuum in a way that leads to an understanding that covers crisis-specific settings as well as humanitarian crises in general. Thus, the present paper aims to contribute to advancing this conceptual front by comparing general approaches to the continuum of humanitarian crisis management with those that can be found through the work on two emblematic types of crises: disaster risk reduction and peacebuilding. We show that parallel understandings of the continuum as a matter of actors and as a matter of phases coexist and are in need of disambiguation; there is difficulty internalizing the non-linearity of the process and a lack of clarity on the position of prevention within humanitarian crisis management. We put forward a multi-layered activities model as the most basic understanding of the continuum to which all actors can converge, and describe its strengths and weaknesses. Local ownership is the most important limiting factor, and the alternative to realizing the continuum of pursuing approaches internal to or among foreign actors is not a substitute.