The Pacific, and Challenges Facing American Nonprofits

Social Capital and Philanthropy in Maori Society

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 6, Issue 2, February 2004

By Tuwhakairiora Williams and David Robinson*


Social capital theory focuses on “the collection of resources that an individual or a group has access to through their membership of an ongoing network of mutual acquaintance and which features social structure, such as relationships, norms and social trust within which coordination and cooperation for common benefit is developed.”[1] In sum, social capital is the network of relationships among actors that creates a capacity to act for mutual benefit or a common purpose.

Over the past three years, the two of us, in collaboration with John Cody, have researched the concept of social capital in New Zealand. A key area of our research is the Maori tradition of social capital. Although this tradition is slowly being eroded by modernization and urbanization, it remains important. Among other things, it helps explain why the Maori are virtually invisible in philanthropy outside their own community, and it suggests steps for getting them more involved.

An Overview of Maori Social Capital

In order to be Maori, one must recognize and respect community norms. Traditional Maori values are rooted in the whanau (family). The concepts and practice of whakapono (trust), tika (integrity), pono (truth), manaaki (nurturing), aroha (love), tautoko (support), and hapai (uplift) all represent community values as long as they reside in the family and are based within it. Family relationships thus are the basis for all other relationships.

Social capital and philanthropy in Maori society are best understood through the concept of manaaki (nurturing), a fundamental obligation. Manaaki can be applied to all manner of situations, expressed through these practices:

Awhi – to help or assist in a practical way

Tautoko – to support in verbal and nonverbal ways

Aroha – to give an appropriate emotional response, such as hospitality or generosity

Koha – the giving of a gift that necessitates a reciprocal response, now or in the future; the purpose of koha is always worthy

For the Maori, a gift is more than an object passed from one person to another. To start with, it may not be an object at all: giving one’s time is comparable to giving money, goods, or services, or to granting a mandate (that is, endorsing someone to act on your behalf). More fundamentally, a gift makes a statement about place–the place of the giver and the place of the receiver. This clarifies and enhances the position and status of an individual with the Iwi (tribal group) and the wider community.

The Maori concepts of giving, caring, and sharing are intimately linked to obligations, duties, responsibilities, and reciprocal arrangements. It is difficult to differentiate these elements because of the seamless framework within which they are practiced. All these behaviors are essential for a Maori individual to gain a sense of completeness, which holds high importance in this world.

Traditional Maori society still exists to a large extent in the marae. (The marae is the sacred open meeting area that is associated with a traditional meeting house. The marae is the customary focal point for meetings, discussions, funerals, and for welcoming visitors to the area.) Here, reciprocity continues to underpin giving, just as tradition dictates. When I make a return visit, I will reciprocate, and it is understood that I will be more generous in the giving and sharing; this in turn will be reciprocated by the hosts in a more generous manner when they make a return visit. The mana (prestige and integrity) of the giver must be upheld in this protocol, and doing so recognizes and acknowledges the mana of the receiver. An increase or decrease of giving on a return visit will be met in kind, leading to an increase or decrease in the mana of the visitor as well as that of the gift.

Whereas these rules of reciprocity apply to hosts and guests, there is no visible exchange involved in working on the marae. Such work simply helps define the individual and exemplifies the elements of Te Ao Maori (the Maori world). In addition, it serves to remind Maori of their place in the global environment and the associated responsibilities, especially the duty to safeguard their cultural perspectives and practices in order to exercise kaitiakitanga (stewardship) in the global context.

A key issue in Maori society is that of the collective ownership of all resources in traditional society. This includes land, fisheries, and forests and the communal value imbued in them. The guardian who oversees the collectively owned assets cannot give them away or assign authority over them to anyone else. The guardian’s role is merely to nurture and to create sustainable outcomes.

Maori society features private as well as public giving. Here is an example of private giving: Aunty, who has worked tirelessly in the kitchen at the marae for years, is given an informal gift in recognition of her efforts by the hapu, the sub-tribe responsible for the marae, without anyone’s knowing about it. Making a public display of such a gift would lead to Whakama (embarrassment) for people who work in this way. Their work is driven by the obligation to ensure the well-being of the guests and to see that they are accorded manaaki (nurturing) throughout their stay. Such commitment is essential to uphold the standing and integrity of the marae.

Public giving is likewise important, as when a visitor places koha (a gift requiring a reciprocal response) on the marae. Through this act, the cultural protocol is carried out, the reciprocal arrangement for the future is confirmed, and both guests and hosts support the kaupapa, or cultural context and rules. The process helps cement the relationship of the two groups, and it defines how they will work together for the common good.

Finally, Maori traditions engender a community-wide self-reliance. This is reflected in such attitudes as “talking up our community,” “hand up and not hand out,” and “collective action for collective benefit.”

Redefining Koha

Today, a form of redefinition is taking place in Maori society, as the cultural tradition of giving that requires a reciprocal response, koha, and the behaviors associated with it confront modern urban mores.

The definition and protocols of giving in the modern context differ from those in the Maori community. In particular, understandings differ as to duty, responsibility, and obligation, along with their role in giving. Accordingly, the cultural practice of koha is being adapted to different circumstances. Though more research is needed, some key elements are identifiable in concept as well as in practice.

First, urbanization has contributed to a breakdown in traditional Maori society, making it difficult to pass fundamental values and teachings on to the next generation.

Second, the introduction of money has replaced the former exchange system, creating tension between traditional practices and modern ones.

Third, urbanization has alienated Maori from some traditional practices. For example, tika (integrity) incorporates an expectation of reciprocity. Where tribal authorities such as Trust Boards and Runanga grant educational scholarships, they expect the recipients to return and apply their acquired skills and knowledge to the common good. Today, this does not happen in the majority of cases, a consequence of urbanization and the resulting decline of traditional values.

Finally, replacements are not arising for Maori leaders. The pathway to leadership reflected in the saying “mai i te ahi ki te pae” (“from the fireplace at the back to the speaking platform at the front”) has largely been replaced by modern education and the development of leadership coming from a western paradigm. As a result, paepae tapu (speaking platforms on the marae) are manned by fewer and fewer people, who face an even smaller pool from which to draw replacements.

Implications for Philanthropy

In the broader society, Maori today are virtually invisible in philanthropy, in part because the philanthropic sector has failed to market itself as relevant to them.

Maori have little experience with the fundamentals of western philanthropy, such as the individual’s ownership of a resource, his ability to give it away, and his enjoyment of tax benefits as a result. Legal structures such as charitable trusts are even more alien. In addition, public acknowledgment of a large charitable gift, as is common in the West, is anathema to Maori tradition. Together, these factors constitute a philosophical barrier to greater Maori participation in the sector.

If this is to change, Maori thinking and practice about giving must be incorporated in future development of the philanthropic sector in Aotearoa New Zealand. In addition, Maori need greater decision making authority within the sector.

The sector also must gain a better understanding of Maori motivations for giving and forms of giving. The concepts of aroha (love) and manaaki (nurturing) underpin Maori generosity, but the result does not precisely mirror western generosity, for Maori generosity also incorporates wairua (the spiritual dimension) and pono (integrity and sincerity).

The erosion of Maori traditions, by itself, cannot be counted on to spur greater Maori participation in philanthropy. Young Maori may not adhere to traditional forms of cultural obligations, but they do not necessarily embrace western values of volunteering, philanthropy, and charity, either.


Social capital theory represents a useful framework for analyzing and understanding Maori concepts of giving and sharing, which are derived from the primacy of extended family relationships. The theory is also useful for understanding the norms and values of the Maori community.

Within their community, Maori must be able to give and receive in accordance with their traditions. Outside that community, we must recognize and respect those traditions in order to attract greater Maori participation in giving. Thriving Maori philanthropy demands the freedom to participate on their terms, following the pathways of development they choose.


* Tuwhakairiora Williams is Chief Executive of the Maori Congress. David Robinson is Director of the Institute of Policy Studies Program on Civil Society at Victoria University.

[1] Introduction to Building Social Capital, David Robinson, IPS, Victoria University 2002