Nonprofit Conflicts: Succession Lessons From The Jeopardy Host Fiasco
By: Jess Birken
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The news we all have been waiting for finally came out last week – the new hosts of Jeopardy! After weeks and weeks of drama and fans waiting with bated breath, it's been announced that Ken Jennings and Mayim Bialik will co-host the show (until at least the end of the year). If you haven't been watching this unfold in the news, here's the low down:
The Jeopardy Succession Fiasco
After Jeopardy host Alex Trebek died in late 2020, the media began to buzz about the next host. Trebek had been hosting Jeopardy since the mid-1980s, and the next host would define the future of the show. That's when Mike Richards, then-Executive Producer, was assigned the job of finding the new host.
After all the pre-recorded episodes with Trebek aired, viewers saw a series of guest hosts who were all vying for the permanent hosting gig. Prospective hosts included journalist Anderson Cooper, daytime TV host Dr. Oz, former child star Mayim Bialik, actor LeVar Burton, and former Jeopardy contestant Ken Jennings. Each did a short stint on the show to get through the first season without Trebek and show off their hosting chops. But it turns out, those hosts weren't the only ones going for the job.
As more and more people speculated about the next Jeopardy host, the news finally came out – Executive Producer Mike Richards himself was to be the new host to replace Trebek. Sony claimed that Richards stepped out of the decision-making role once his name was thrown into the ring. But let's be honest – this just didn't feel good to viewers, especially after a long, public search and many well-known candidates up for the job.
That bad feeling was before the dirt got dug up on Richards. Within days of the announcement, people unearthed some questionable comments Richards made on podcasts a few years back, as well as a lawsuit made against him by a pregnant employee who had been let go. After all the uproar, Mike Richards was out – from the host gig and his executive producer position. Sony now had to backtrack to find the best host to fil the role.
So, what does this have to do with nonprofits, you ask? Well, as a lawyer for nonprofits, I've seen lots of organizations go through the process of selecting new leaders – and not all of them do it right, especially when an insider is involved. This Jeopardy host situation reminded me of those cases. While the nonprofits I work with definitely don't have the broad public scrutiny the Jeopardy host search had, it can be very public to their own group of constituents. And it matters that nonprofits (of all sizes) manage big transitions well, especially where insiders are involved.
Nonprofit Succession from Within
From the Jeopardy story, it might sound like you can never choose an insider for a position of power in a nonprofit – but that's not entirely true. The issue wasn't that Mike Richards was named the host. The issue was that Richards faced an obvious conflict of interest in this situation. He behaved in a way that people immediately recognized as self-serving. As producer, Richards was involved with every other candidate in their audition episodes – he certainly had the authority and opportunity to influence when their episodes aired or otherwise tip the competition in his favor. Plus, he was one of the people charged with the task of finding Trebek's replacement, and it wasn't at all clear when he gave up that responsibility and who took it over for him.
If Richards had stepped down from his producer role and it turned out he was the most qualified candidate – it could've been a non-issue. If he'd gone through the same process as everyone else before he was chosen (by a decision-making body that didn't include him), that could have been fine too. But compared to folks like Ken Jennings, who won Jeopardy 74 games in a row, or LeVar Burton, former host of Reading Rainbow and actor in StarTrek Next Generation with rabid, loving fans, the pick just felt wrong. The conflict stunk up the whole thing. The PR fallout lasted for weeks – nearly an eternity by 2021 standards!
I've seen this go down with the same foul stink at nonprofits. Often a small group with a working board decides that it's finally time to hire a paid executive director. Someone among the board members feels they are the perfect candidate to take on that role. This is about the time that my phone rings and the client is asking whether it's even legal to hire from the board. Here's what I tell them: sure, they can apply for the job. But they need to step down from their seat on the board the minute they apply to the position.
A board member applying for a job within the nonprofit is not “illegal,” but it does present challenges. First of all, what if they don't get the job? There is a particularly sticky employment issue that can arise where a board member that applied to be an executive director, but doesn't get the position, is still on the board and is now supervising the person who did actually get the job. This can go wrong a few ways, but retaliation and interpersonal problems are common in this situation – or there are unfounded allegations that the board member is behaving a certain way because they were passed over for the position. As you can imagine, it's hard to prove what’s real and what’s not at that point.
This is why I generally recommend that any board member who wants to apply to be paid staff should be willing to resign their board position on the date they submit their application for the position – not after the decision is made. It alleviates potential employment law problems and the appearance of impropriety.
Another way this goes wrong is that board members who become hired employees are effectively demoted. The board member is used to having an equal seat and an equal say at the board table. When they become staff, they are no longer on the board. They are hired, fired, disciplined, and given direction by the board. They no longer have the same vote and are not an equal on the governing body. Pretty soon an election happens, the board seats change, and new leadership may have different ideas or priorities than the new ED/former board member. I've seen this result in extreme frustration for the new ED/former board member who had ideas about how the organization should run and is now being told “that’s nice but we decided to do X not Y.”
My advice? Any board member who decides to pursue a staff position should fully consider the ramifications of their choice before applying.
Who knows, Mike Richards might have ended up being miserable as the host without executive producer direction control. Or maybe he would've tried to hold on to both hats, making everyone around him miserable. Regardless, it's clear that Jeopardy botched this transition, got press for all the wrong reasons, and angered fans.
In the for-profit sector, we can argue all press is good press. But for nonprofits, bad press can really hurt the bottom line. When donors don't trust, donors don't give. World class organizations manage their conflicts and have a transparent process in hiring new leadership, especially when they're an insider.
Hiring an Insider – The Right Way
At the same time this Jeopardy debacle was playing out, I noticed a world class nonprofit getting press for handling a leadership transition well. The newly chosen President and CEO of American Public Media Group is a great example of executive transition and hiring an insider gone right.
The parent company of Minnesota Public Radio News brought on a new leader, CEO Jean Taylor. Last year, MPR employees publicly criticized its leadership, voicing concerns over gender and racial inequities, and the former CEO stepped down.
Taylor, like Mike Richards, was already serving in a leadership role as an MPR board trustee and, like Mike Richards, she was named to the CEO search committee. But here's the difference. According to the article, Taylor "stepped down from her role as a search committee member" and "disengaged" from the board when she entered the candidate selection process.
There it is folks, that's how you do it right. And for nonprofits large and small, this is a transition you want to make sure is done right. You don't want your mission and important work to be overshadowed by bad publicity. Conduct a search for a qualified candidate, and make sure the process to select and hire that person is transparent and ethical. And maybe don't audition a fan favorite like LeVar Burton, just to go with the guy behind the curtain all along.
Jess Birken is the owner of Birken Law Office, a firm designed to help nonprofits. Ideal Client Engagements are nonprofits looking for a strategic partner who will give pragmatic advice and keep business operations on track so the mission work stays a priority.
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