I have had the great honor and privilege to work with many CEOs over three decades. My company, Tammy Dowley-Blackman Group, LLC was founded after I served as the senior leader of two nationally affiliated nonprofits. I imagined my company would fill the strategic needs of organizations and be a thought leader for CEOs and management teams in ways I wish had been available to me. For two decades, I have met that goal and enjoyed working with talented and committed leaders, with a few of them as amazing standouts. Karen Hobert Flynn was one of the best!
Karen reached out to colleagues in the fall of 2021 requesting recommendations of companies that could manage a large-scale racial equity process that had been designed based on a set of recommendations outlined by some Black staff at Common Cause in a June 2020 letter. During her research, my company was recommended multiple times. I had never crossed paths with Karen but knew about the sizable democracy-related portfolio built by Common Cause since my first project with the Proteus Fund in 2010.
When I met Karen, she had served in almost every senior level role at Common Cause, including Executive Director of Connecticut Common Cause, and Interim Co-President. She was named the permanent President in 2016 and set about scaling the organization with notable achievements of tripling the organization’s fundraising revenue, including approving the investment of resources to build the digital fundraising team, and significantly increasing the number of staff of color, particularly those in leadership roles.
Karen and the team were managing the COVID-19 crisis, faced with the images of George Floyd’s murder, while trying to support a fair and democratic 2020 federal election free of voter intimidation and suppression. Despite these major issues requiring her full attention, Karen was 100% committed to ensuring the Black staff recommendations were fully met. To ensure success, she told colleagues she needed a company to partner with her that could take on a vast scope of work, respond to the needs of 125+ staff members, as well as a 20+ member National Governing Board and 250+ member State Advisory Board, conduct an internal racial equity audit, assist with major projects, including the pay equity study and hiring of the first VP of People, Equity, and Inclusion, and provide executive coaching for the CEO and Management Team.
The ultimate hiring decision lay with Karen, but she was clear from the start my company’s proposal would be vetted by multiple Common Cause team members, including the newly established representative 25-member Racial Equity Group (REAG). She cautioned that the team was exhausted post-election, everyone was overwhelmed by the pandemic, and emotions were running high. She was determined to find a way to help the entire Common Cause team respond positively to this moment.
We realized we had similar leadership styles. We remained calm and steadfast in our belief that these recommendations were good for Common Cause and that there was no road but forward toward successful implementation. Karen was able to hold together an internal coalition of her National Governing Board of Directors and the REAG, much like she held coalitions together to get the Connecticut Campaign Finance Reform legislation passed that became a national model.
When we finally met for the first time at the June 2022 National Governing Board meeting in Washington, D.C. Karen was beaming with excitement and pride. She was so glad to see her team and board members beyond the Zoom screen. She was also excited as another big goal had been met…. the launch of the strategic planning process. When we began our work, one of the first decisions she made was to hold strategic planning off for an additional year to ensure that racial equity was fully explored and centered. She wanted an inclusive planning process and believed the racial equity assessment and learning would inform the strategic planning process, as well shine a light on potential issues that lacked alignment that may have long-term critical significance. So many organizations try to rush through the planning process and are later forced to reverse engineer to include racial equity, and it translates into an unsuccessful afterthought. Karen wanted an inclusive process that would be an ongoing model for aligning equity and democracy and understood that could only be achieved with patience and centering equity from the beginning.
The March 8-10, 2023 National Governing Board meeting was designed to focus on the final touches of new strategic plan implementation and was to be a victory lap for the entire organization. Karen would again give the report as to how the team had hit, or were organized to continue to meet, ongoing racial equity goals (this is a huge deal…. ask any organization that offered big platitudes and intentions in 2020 and now find themselves barely able to point to any results). The new Vice President of People, Equity, and Inclusion was to share the incredible work she had completed in just seven months to advance Common Cause’s people and operational capacity with an equity lens, and the National Governing Board, which developed a Racial Equity Committee of its own, was set to provide updates. Everyone was excited to welcome Karen back after her medical leave.
Sadly, Karen passed away on March 3, 2023. Everyone was shaken beyond belief. I, like many others, am heartbroken. It felt and still feels surreal. Just two weeks prior, she and I discussed future programming and planning for the organization. She was looking forward to attending the March board meeting and watching the team begin to dig into discussions about how to operationalize the strategic plan. Instead, we faced a different reality when we gathered March 8-10. Instead of focusing on the final touches to the strategic plan, we mourned an incredible leader who fought for all of us in her quest to ensure democracy, and everyone stepped up mightily to implement the high-performing succession planning that would have made Karen proud.
The 2016 election confirmed for Karen that Common Cause was needed more than ever, and she set about trying to pave a new way forward for the organization to be better equipped to fight for democracy. The irony is that everything she built during her almost seven-year tenure was culminating just as she hoped in the effort to center equity and to formalize a bigger and bolder new strategic plan, as well as completing the long-overdue necessary hiring to create the capacity needed to make it all happen. She was excited to return to help launch this important next step in the Common Cause history. Karen was Common Cause’s North Star.
This week, I will join the Common Cause team and National Governing Board, democracy advocates, elected officials and many others in Washington, D.C. to celebrate 50 years of committed service by Common Cause to champion democracy. During this time, a special program will take place on June 8 to honor the legacy of Karen Hobert Flynn. I am sad that Karen won’t get to see all that she dreamt and help build. I am also sad she isn’t here to kick-off the launch of the first strategic plan to fully align equity and democracy. She loved Common Cause, her team, and her board members. She loved the work, the collaboration, and the fight for what is right.
I am extremely fortunate to do the work I do. CEOs like Karen Hobert Flynn let me walk alongside them, let me assist them and their teams, let me see up close what they are great at and that which they work hard to improve. Most of all, they let me see their humanity, their goodness, their humor, how much they love their families (Karen absolutely loved her mom, siblings, husband Rob, and her four boys, whom she called “the boys”).
Many others knew Karen far longer than I did, but we were all touched by her and will miss her. She was an amazing force for good! I extend thanks to her family for sharing her with Common Cause, with all of us, and in the fight for democracy. Each of us has been made better by sharing time with Karen, and thankfully, her work and her commitment to democracy remains present in all of us and in Common Cause. Please consider a gift to Common Cause to honor Karen’s important work fighting for democracy.
Learn more about Karen Hobert Flynn and Common Cause at this link: www.commoncause.org/page/remembering-karen-hobert-flynn/.
Tammy Dowley-Blackman Group, LLC is a certified National Supplier Development Council Minority Business Enterprise (MBE), Small Business Administration (SBA) Woman Owned Small Business (WOSB), and Women’s Business Enterprise Network Council (WBENC) woman-owned company. The company is comprised of a suite of brands, including TDB Group Strategic Advisory, a management consulting firm; Looking Forward Lab, a media content company focused on Gen Z, which partners with corporations and higher education systems to offer a full-service learning engagement model that delivers workforce development solutions; and Cooper + Lowe, an incubator for women interested in transitioning to entrepreneurship and thought leadership using the tools of a company that has successfully scaled.