September 4, 2013

Distinction or difference or … See my musings a bit later in this blog, after this background:

I’ve told you before that I read a lot. And, yes, I read business stuff.

But I read popular culture, too. Popular culture…Soap operas to Terminator movies. Romance novels to mysteries. Teen fiction and Ian Fleming. Comics. And so much more.

Popular culture is actually an academic discipline, not just the fun that we all have. One of my professors at MSU – and a dear friend of our family – Russ Nye (Pulitzer Prize winner) wrote The Unembarrassed Muse: The Popular Arts in America. Wonderful book. And Russ co-founded the Popular Culture Association, “shaping a new academic discipline that blurred the traditional distinctions between high and low culture.” (Wikipedia)

I’ve always been a huge popular culture fan… Even with a masters degree in 20th century French and American literature – and part way through my PhD in the same (even though I never intended to teach at the university level; I just liked the study).

So I just finished another novel by Daniel Silva, with his character Gabriel Allon, Israeli spy and art restorer. The English Girl. And in the book is this statement: “Maybe it was a distinction without a difference.”

Hmmm… a distinction without a difference…a distinction with a difference… Insightful and useful.

For example:

  • I’m forever writing about the distinction between the board (the group) and the board member. I can tell that people think this is a distinction without a difference. But that’s just plain wrong! The distinction between the board and the board member  is big – and that distinction makes a very big difference over and over. Just read my various blogs. And see the materials in my Free Download Library.
  • Or how about the distinction between the board chair and other board members. That’s a distinction without much of a difference. The board chair has no more authority than any other board member, despite fantasies to the contrary. You can read about that in my blogs, too.
  • Is there a distinction between fundraising and fund development. Sometimes I think of “fundraising” as primarily the asking part. And I think “fund development” is more expansive and inclusive and strategic. But is the distinction particularly important, making a huge difference. To me, not so much.

Do we sometimes get caught up in the distinction…only to realize that the difference isn’t sufficiently substantial to matter? Do we even think about whether a particular distinction makes an important difference?

I’m forever collecting and creating cage-rattling questions (CRQs according to my students at Saint Mary’s University!) Maybe an important question for nonprofit organizations, boards, staff, fundraising, planning … maybe an important question for life is: What are the distinctions that make a difference – and what will we do about it? Or how about these CRQs:

  • How do we determine whether the distinction makes a difference?
  • How do we engage in conversations about distinctions that matter and those that don’t matter?
  • How do we avoid getting caught up in a conversation about distinctions that do or don’t make a difference – only to find ourselves stuck in a distinction without a difference?

Thanks, Messieurs Silva and Allon.

What do you learn from novels?



About Simone Joyaux

A consultant specializing in fund development, strategic planning, and board development, Simone P. Joyaux works with all types and sizes of nonprofits, speaks at conferences worldwide, and teaches in the graduate program for philanthropy at Saint Mary’s University, MN. Her books, Keep Your Donors and Strategic Fund Development, are standards in the field.

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