Understanding Mahi Aroha: Maori perspectives on volunteering in Aotearoa New Zealand

sduncan post on January 30th, 2013
Posted in Australia Tags: , ,

By Deanna Coop

It’s just how we operate.
If someone in my whânau needs help, then I do it.
It could be going to a tangi of someone I never knew,
or getting hold of information for someone
or helping out in the kitchen, or whatever.”

Volunteering is particularly important for the Maori people of Aotearoa New Zealand. It is so much a part of their everyday lives that many do not classify it as anything separate. A study conducted by the New Zealand Office of the Community and Voluntary Sector found that 9 out of 10 Maori people participated in some kind of unpaid activity in the month prior to the New Zealand census of 2001 (Office of the Community and Voluntary Sector, 2007).
However, unlike Western cultures where volunteering and philanthropy are common concepts, the Maori do not have a term directly equivalent to “volunteering”. And, furthermore Maori today are virtually invisible in philanthropy outside of their communities (Robinson, 2002).

How then do the Maori create a social safety net within their communities? How are the physical, social and economic needs fulfilled so that this culture can survive and recover, in times of need?


Mahi aroha is the most appropriate term for understanding Maori perspectives on volunteering – a fundamental act of philanthropy and citizenship that strengthens, connects and sustains communities. This term reflects their worldview, experiences, and motivations for carrying out unpaid work for their communities. It is much more than simply donating ones time, energy and resources.

Mahi aroha is defined as voluntary work for ones wahanau (family), hapu (tribe) or iwi (subtribe) performed out of love, sympathy or caring through a sense of duty instead of for personal or financial gain (Office of the Community and Voluntary Sector, 2007). It is as much about feeling as about doing; and it encompasses tohu aroha – the spiritual, emotional and cultural elements of volunteering.

Motivation for MAHI AROHA

There are three key principles of mahi aroha which may be considered the motivations for Maori participation in voluntary work.
Tikanga – Doing what is believed to be the right thing to do according to Maori values and culture, as passed down by one’s ancestors.

Cultural survival and recovery – Doing whatever is needed to ensure that tikanga Maori continues and thrives.

Extent of need – Maori respond to clear and urgent needs related to poverty, social stressors and support for Maori culture, values and institutions. (Office of the Community and Voluntary Sector, 2007)

This third motivation ‘extent of need’ may explain why the Maori are virtually invisible to the outside world of philanthropy. Maori respond to their community needs ‘first and foremost’ and therefore may not be primarily engaged in other expressions of philanthropy in New Zealand society.

Examples of MAHI AROHA

Examples of mahi aroha tend to be focussed on the whanau, hapu, iwi or marae (traditional meeting house). And, women (just as in Western cultures) tend to participate more than men in mahi aroha or “voluntary” activities.
Included are a varied of mahi aroha activities:
• Performing the haka and traditional Maori carving
• Advisory work for the whanau and government agencies
• Maori small business
• Advisory work in relation to Treaty matters
• Responding to needs of whanau, whanaunga and others.


Mahi aroha is a part of Aotearoa New Zealand’s national identity. It provides a means for the Maori to meet the physical, social and economic needs of their wahanau (family), hapu (tribe) and iwi (subtribe) and thus build the social capital of their society.

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