Katrina “Kat” Miller-Stevens spent her young life moving frequently, as the daughter of a political science professor who taught at colleges and universities in Arkansas, Illinois, Wyoming and Utah. Following in her father’s footsteps, Miller-Stevens is an associate professor with Colorado College’s Department of Economics and Business. She earned her undergraduate degree in history from Colorado State University, her master’s in nonprofit management from Regis University and her Ph.D. in public affairs from the University of Colorado, Denver.
Her academic focus includes nonprofits, business management, public policy, social movements and collaborative causes. She’s especially interested in comparisons between benefit corporations and nonprofit organizations.
Miller-Stevens has studied the impacts of regulations on lobbying expenditures and governance practices. Within the sphere of collaborative causes, she explores new models and frameworks, explaining how for-profit business, nonprofit organizations and the public sector work to solve social and environmental problems.
She was recently selected as director of Colorado College’s State of the Rockies project — an ongoing endeavor that researches environmental issues in the Centennial State, while seeking and proposing potential programmatic solutions. In addition to her work with Colorado College, Miller-Stevens holds seats on various nonprofit boards including the J.H. Edmondson Foundation, the Colorado Institute for Social Impact and the Colorado Nonprofit Association.
She talked with the Business Journal about her new role and the book she co-authored, the soon-to-be-released Founders and Organizational Development: The Etiology and Theory of Founder’s Syndrome.
What were your interests growing up, and do they relate to the work you do now?
My parents were very involved in volunteering and community service, and so I eventually thought I’d work in the nonprofit sector. I mean, at a young age I was not using the phrase “nonprofit sector,” but the volunteer work I was familiar with and shaped by was certainly in that sphere. As I got older, though, I realized I wanted to teach as well. That’s when I got involved in public policy as a path of academics … and nonprofit management — combining the two.
How long have you been teaching at Colorado College?
I started teaching at Colorado College in the fall of 2016. Before that, I was at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia — but I missed Colorado terribly. It took me six years to get back here. And even prior to that, I worked within the nonprofit sector for a decade in differing capacities … as a grants manager, budget coordinator and program evaluator.
How did you get appointed as director of the State of the Rockies?
Those who are on the advisory board are asked if they want to submit an application — and then the call goes out into the entire college, but typically someone on the advisory board fills the position. I was really attracted to the position and applied. [The term] is a maximum of three years — and I’m three months into my term.
What does the director do?
The director essentially sets the agenda for the research portion — that’s the position’s primary responsibility. State of the Rockies is split into two pillars: One is research- and education-focused and the other pillar is innovative programming. [We ask], ‘What are some beneficial outcomes of our research? What are some ways we can move forward and improve upon these issues?’
My predecessor was interested in the urban landscape of Colorado and how it is changing, and I’m more interested in the abandoned fracking wells in Colorado — and other Rocky Mountain states — and their relationship with communities, nonprofit organizations and social movements.
While hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking,’ is credited with economic growth in Rocky Mountain states, there has been an increasing problem of abandoned wells in the wake of falling oil and gas prices in 2020. Many companies have gone bankrupt, leaving behind open recesses. The clean-up and plugging of these deserted drilling shafts have become the responsibility of local and state governments, igniting policy and political debates. The purpose of our research is to better understand these debates.
We know the fracking industry has been researched quite a bit in Colorado and across the Rocky Mountain West, but one thing that hasn’t been touched on in depth are these abandoned wells. We’re interested in going into the communities and talking with people — we’ll look at the issues from the ground up … then eventually circulate up to the policymakers.
We’re in the stage of getting our resources together because we’re not counting on being able to do interviews this summer, with the assumption that people still won’t be comfortable due to COVID. We’re laying the groundwork and then we hope to launch interviews next year — when we have increased access to people, face-to-face. We could do interviews over the phone or video, but these conversations will be best done in person. … People get emotional about their lives and how things are affecting their loved ones and community. We already have student fellows compiling detailed maps. It’s just the very beginning stages, but we do have a purpose in mind. The end goal is to illuminate what people are experiencing around the abandoned wells, and how might nonprofits — who are interested in advocating for people — be able to participate in the policy process. We’ll be looking into the social injustices, environmental injustices, and the economic hardships.
And it’s not just people who are negatively affected. We are looking at all angles. There certainly were profitable positives to these communities when the drilling was operational.
What are other projects under State of the Rockies?
Orange Skies … was a project developed by [State of the Rockies Specialist] Cyndy Hines. Students submitted photos of the wildfires of the Rocky Mountain West, and they’ll be displayed and available to the public at the Pioneers Museum next month [starting May 1]. With that exhibit, we add an educational component about the importance and destruction of wildfires in our region.
One of our big projects is the Conservation in the West Poll. … We poll all the states in the Rocky Mountain West on dozens of different issues. It’s explained well on our website [coloradocollege.edu/other/stateoftherockies] … but a big part is to put the data out and create projects around the information. We have a lot of student fellows working during the summer on a project that has to do with results of the poll. We work with both a Republican polling company and a Democrat one … that we contract to work closely with us. It’s a really neat bipartisan, collaborative project. One of the issues in the poll this year was diversity, equity and inclusion. We’re trying to create a project where we integrate the data from the poll related to [diversity, equity and inclusion] and the outdoors.
Tell us about your upcoming book, Founders and Organizational Development.
The book is co-authored with Stephen Block — who has previously written about nonprofits — and it’s about Founder Syndrome. Founder Syndrome is a circumstance characterized through a medical lens — using the word “syndrome” to describe a condition an organization is experiencing. It’s a negative but complex condition faced by many companies, often younger ones, where a range of problems extend from a disproportionate power and influence of the founder of that organization. It’s when a person establishes an organization but a triggering event occurs and the board of directors doesn’t want that person in charge anymore … or time simply passes and the board sees a different direction for the company — there’s internal conflict, breakdown, and a toxic work environment.
The book first defines Founders Syndrome, and then also different theories that apply— like public administration and management theories. Then there is a discussion of common traits amongst founders of organizations that have found themselves in these circumstances. There’s a chapter that focuses on case studies of nonprofit organizations that have experienced Founder Syndrome and walk the reader through what happened. … Let’s look at the founder, analyze them, and see how they relate to everything covered in previous chapters. There’s also another chapter of case studies of for-profit companies.
We have found articles, and there are a few books regarding Founder Syndrome, but we wanted to put it all together in one comprehensive resource … not only as a teaching tool for students but a reference for practitioners who feel like they’re experiencing Founder Syndrome in their organizations. The last chapter is about avoiding Founder Syndrome and how you can get out of it if your company is in the midst of it.
The premise of the book sounds very different than what I’m doing with State of the Rockies, but so much of my work regards governance issues in nonprofit organization — which Founder Syndrome falls under. [The book is being released] June 22 — that’s the plan.
What do you love about teaching?
I grow as a person doing it — and vice versa — I have the incredible opportunity to contribute to students’ personal and professional growth. Students inspire me, and I aim to inspire them. That’s why I love teaching.