A short and imperfect history of early New Zealand philanthropy

Eleanor Cater
Membership Services Director, CFNZ
24 January 2023

For those of you interested in philanthropy (defined by Payton and Moody as ‘private action, for public good’), a look at the history of Aotearoa New Zealand shows that our philanthropic culture, post-colonisation, started slowly, responding cautiously to emerging needs.

That is not to say that the colonisers of New Zealand, who primarily came from Britain, ‘invented’ philanthropy, as Māori have a proud history of philanthropy which goes back centuries prior. In this article, the late Mānuka Hēnare explored the idea of “two distinct traditions of philanthropy at work” in Aotearoa, including a strong reciprocal approach to philanthropy in Te Ao Māori. Hēnare also writes that traditionally there existed no Māori word for ‘poor’ (which is a thought-provoking concept indeed and, with respect, well beyond the scope of this article).

Post signing of The Treaty/Te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840, Thomson writes that newly colonised New Zealand was regarded as a ‘colonial experiment’, a social laboratory to observe, especially with regards to the role that the state would play in its development. This left the door open to philanthropic culture developing, to plug the funding gaps in society, at time when anti-welfare sentiment amongst settlors was strong. There was an active resistance to British-style ‘Poor Laws’ and a “highly individualistic ethos” emerged, unfortunately at a time when early charity structures were also rather underdeveloped (artfully described by Thomson as “ramshackle”).

Philanthropic culture and charity development did not keep up with society’s needs and, unsurprisingly, around the turn of the 20th century the ‘colonial experiment’, with its hands off government approach, was under immense stress. The original settlors were aging, welfare requirements were increasing, and the government responded with a bold welfare move: the 1898 Old Age Pensions Bill. The bill had been led, in part, by international welfare reforms, and in response to the inability of a fledgling charity sector to meet the growing welfare needs of the aged. In short, where philanthropy was proving to be inadequate in meeting social needs, the government eventually stepped in.

Philanthropy in the form of volunteerism was strong, with the formation of benevolent societies, based on a British charity model, where they were funded by subscriptions, fundraisers, occasional bequests, as well as government grants. For the most part however, colonial New Zealand did not manage to emulate the strong monetary philanthropic culture of Britain. The Auckland Ladies’ Benevolent Society, for example, largely survived on taxpayer funds, with their 1904 report stating:
“It is painful … to record that except for the contribution by the General Government out of colonial revenue, some Aucklanders of ample means would never give a penny-piece towards the poor and needy. Needless to say, there is no charity in forced tax contributions” (Tennant, 2007).

Because private wealth was not vast, and philanthropic culture was underdeveloped, the New Zealand government took on an early charity funding role. Partnerships were formed, with charities relying on government for support, some as early as the 1880s. The 1885 Hospitals and Charitable Institutions Act provided for a system of funding from three sources: local body rates, central government subsidies and voluntary donations, as “politicians wanted to encourage appropriate forms of charity”, however Tennant observed that “unfortunately, it also gave the general public an opportunity to leave the support of charities to government”.

In the early years of colonisation, Tennant writes that “Māori were considered the responsibility of government” and early charity in New Zealand did not support the growing welfare needs of Māori, nor their aspirations. The great depression further highlighted that the piecemeal of charitable organisations was inadequate in meeting wider society’s needs. Poverty was becoming more apparent, with McClure writing that the system of charity proved to be “chaotic, inadequate and humiliating”.

It was towards the end of the great depression that New Zealand’s first Labour government was elected, and the welfare state was established by an Act of Parliament in 1938. As a result, Tennant writes that there was “some belief that charities would no longer be needed”, however charities, funded by philanthropic donations, continued to provide services, working alongside government to achieve social aims.

Prior to the establishment of the welfare state only a handful of local philanthropic trusts existed. Some of the larger trusts which set to work meeting social needs were formed around the 1940s, including the J.R. Mackenzie Trust (read here the wonderful story of J. R. Mackenzie’s ‘munificent gift’) and the Sutherland Trust, both of which continue their impactful work today.

Philanthropically funded religious institutions played a part in facilitating state expansion into welfare. They helped to shape government practice and, writes Tennant, took on an “innovative role – in advance of government”. Orphanages run by all denominations were used by the state to care for children, a role which was shared with the state for a time. A similar pattern had been observed in Britain, as Prochaska writes, “as Christian commitment faded, the ministries of state gradually displaced the ministries of religion as founts of hope and charity”.

Britain has a strong history of private philanthropy which has built public facilities. However, this has not been the case to the same extent in New Zealand (Tennant even observed that “charitable activity in colonial New Zealand was far less of an avenue to male social esteem than elsewhere”). Some early examples include the philanthropic gestures from John Campbell Logan, who donated buildings for causes associated with children, and property investor Edward Costley, who left a significant bequest endowing seven Auckland Institutions.

Other early philanthropists who made private donations for the public good included Alexander Turnbull and the Wellington-based Alexander Turnbull Library, Thomas Cawthron and the science-based Cawthron Institute in Nelson and Rachel Reynolds who contributed to funding the beginnings of free kindergartens across the nation (and who is remembered today in the naming of the Rachel Reynolds Kindergarten in Otago). At times, philanthropy acted as the innovative spark which led later government-funded provision.

In short, early philanthropy in New Zealand started slowly, and may never have emulated the Victorian heyday of British philanthropy. Through this rather short and imperfect look at early philanthropy in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we can see philanthropy both acting as a guiding light and a stabilizing force, seeking its place in society with both formal and informal responses to shifting needs.

This review of history has illustrated the lack of documentation and a need for further research into this subject (for example, I am intrigued to know whether philanthropy played a leading role in New Zealand’s iconic women’s suffrage movement)? There is certainly further work to do to fully explore and tell the story of our nation’s philanthropy, including the stories of tangata whenua, with a more detailed exploration of how private action for public good has helped to shape Aotearoa New Zealand.

If you enjoyed this article, perhaps you can share it... who knows? We may find a philanthropist who would enjoy sparking a new project and funding a historian to write a far more detailed, and less imperfect, chapter of New Zealand’s philanthropic history.

Eleanor Cater is the Membership Services Director for Community Foundations of NZ and is currently completing an MA in Philanthropic Studies through the University of Kent. Over the 2022/23 summer she has been researching the imperfectly documented history of early philanthropy in Aotearoa NZ.


Many thanks must go to the immense work of New Zealand historians Margaret Tennant, David Thomson and Margaret McClure for the historical information contained in this short and imperfect article.

Key references:

Payton R. and Moody M. (2016), ‘Taking philanthropy seriously’ in M. Moody and B. Breeze (ed.) The Philanthropy Reader. Oxon: Routledge

McClure, M. (1998), A Civilised Community – A history of Social Security in New Zealand 1898-1998, Auckland University Press

Tennant M. (2007), The Fabric of Welfare: Voluntary Organisations, Government and Welfare in New Zealand, 1840-2005, Bridget Williams Books

Thomson, D. (1998) A World Without Welfare, New Zealand’s Colonial Experiment, Auckland University Press with Bridget Williams Books

Prochaska, F. (2016), ‘Great Britain has the greatest philanthropic tradition’ in M. Moody and B. Breeze (ed.) The Philanthropy Reader. Oxon: Routledge.

Date Posted: 24 Jan 2023

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