Associating for a purpose

Tuwhakairiora Williams and David Robinson

What it is about voluntary associations and community organizations that helps them create social capital, and is this the same in all cultures? Is the solution to falling rates of civic participation really the ‘great crusade’ to get people to join voluntary and community groups suggested by Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone? Perhaps we should be more concerned about the quality of participation rather than the quantity of associations.

Over the last four years we have been developing a framework for understanding social capital in New Zealand from a Maori and non-Maori perspective.

Much of the popular literature around social capital begins with an assumption that all forms of association and network create social capital. If all community groups are inherently valuable, then the more the better.

However, we suggest that what really matters is not the number of voluntary associations, or the fact that an organization is voluntary or non-profit in the legal sense, but the processes through which people interact and exchange ideas, the norms and values that organizations reflect, the ‘terms of engagement’ between associations in the different spheres. This is of particular importance to groups and individuals who are outside the dominant group in a society.

Our work on social capital is based on understanding how communities work rather than projecting a theoretical concept on to community activity. We thus hope to make our theory of social capital both more real and more relevant.

What is social capital?

Our definition of social capital is as follows:
‘Social capital refers to the collection of resources that an individual or a group has access to through their membership of an ongoing network of mutual acquaintance. Features of this social structure, such as relationships, norms and social trust, help develop coordination and cooperation for common benefit.’

The term ‘resources’ here refers to a wide range of factors including status, attention, knowledge, and opportunities to participate and communicate. It does not simply refer to physical resources and information.

Building social capital requires:

  • active and knowledgeable citizens – actors;
  • a rich network of voluntary associations – agency;
  • forums for public deliberation – opportunity.

These networks and relationships widen access to information and enable views and knowledge to be shared; they provide ‘spaces’ where communication can take place. This is a key function of social capital rich systems.

Recognition and permission

Two key concepts that have been raised in our case studies with Maori organizations and organizations for people with mental health problems are those of recognition and permission: the recognition of differences that enables disadvantaged groups to give themselves permission to participate actively in society. Without this recognition on the part of government, current capacity-building programmes in New Zealand such as those directed at reducing disparities between Maori and non-Maori are unlikely to be successful.

In looking at the issue of discrimination in housing for people with mental health problems, for example, we found that in general it was they who were discriminating against themselves. They did not feel that they were full members of the community and so pre-selected the types of accommodation they would apply for. This was usually city council or government housing; in general they would not apply for private rentals. Therefore there were few cases of discrimination by private landlords. This protective approach by consumers themselves is also apparent in many other areas such as employment and leisure activities.

Both government and community agencies need to take steps to recognize this situation, to acknowledge the potential contribution to society of groups such as these. This is an essential step in encouraging them to give themselves permission to participate in society.

In considering how people associate in practice we need also to recognize cultural differences. A Maori leader told us ‘Social capital – it is us’. That is, social capital exists in the relationships between people, the rules on which those relationships are established, and the way in which they link with (or do not link with) other groups and communities.

Access to social capital

There are four separate factors that affect access to social capital:

  • the underlying political and legal environment;
  • the terms of engagement (whose norms and values are dominant?);
  • processes of interaction, eg dialogue and deliberation – how people express these terms in practice;
  • physical and financial resources.

Considering these four areas means moving beyond counting the number of voluntary organizations that exist in a society. It is the space they operate in and the terms on which relationships are built that are important.

When they are involved in ‘capacity-building’ exercises, government agencies (including international aid and development agencies) frequently begin at the final stage, considering what financial resources are required without giving due attention to the other factors which are preconditions for building social capital.

Giving or sharing?

There is a critical distinction between Western and Maori and Pacific Island communities in relation to giving and sharing. The contrast is between the Western, Christian emphasis on a moral obligation to give to the needy stranger and a cultural obligation to share resources within a tribal group or village.

If the nature of voluntary activity differs in this way, then so must the nature of the organizations through which voluntary activity is expressed. Maori and Pacific peoples’ concept of cultural obligation and sharing within the group leads to forms of association that serve members of the group and that appear to Western observers to be informal.

The basis of customary Maori activities is that there is no distinction between agency and beneficiaries: all share both obligations and benefits. There is no organization to join, no membership fee and no clear rules of access. Membership is based on an exchange of obligations and acceptance by the group. Conditions for joining may be verbal, implicit and obligation-driven rather than rule-driven, specified and written down as is usual in Western society. There is room for flexibility in the way these customary rules are implemented, but this flexibility comes from within the community; it cannot be prescribed or imposed from outside.

Picking up the weaving

Maori social capital is drawn upon to defend, preserve and expand existing extended family and tribal communities. The emphasis is on preserving the language and the culture. The past must be defended as it is the embodiment of the gains as well as the losses, the negatives as well as the positives. It is the whariki (woven mat) that represents the present as well as the future. It is a mat that is without an end because each generation has an obligation to pick up the weaving and their work becomes the legacy for future growth and development.

These Maori concepts do not fit into the dominant Western model of voluntary action that is set out in legislation and public policy. The fact that members of Maori organizations are beneficiaries of their activities means that they have difficulty in being accepted as having charitable status for taxation purposes.

The concept of voluntary activity

The usual Western concept of voluntary activity assumes that everyone has some degree of choice in the allocation of their resources of time, attention and commitment.

The way in which resources that are not of direct monetary value are allocated, and the rules that underpin this allocation, is a key element in the creation and use of social capital. Such processes of resource allocation are all forms of voluntary activity. In considering the provision of opportunities to participate in society, we need to understand the degree to which there is opportunity when ‘choice’ is constrained by a cultural imperative such as an obligation or duty. This leads us to consider that the notion of individual choice or an activity being ‘voluntary’ is not central to community association. Perhaps we should place our focus more on ‘community’ organizations (however they are formed) than on voluntary or non-profit organizations.

Some forms of voluntary activity appear to be beyond monetary value. They are too important to be paid for, and as they are based on cultural obligation they cannot be considered to be truly voluntary. The ultimate ‘volunteer’ in Maori society is the tohunga (traditional healer), who will lose their power if they take payment.


The current New Zealand Government has made the reduction of disparities between different sections of the community (including reducing gaps between Maori and non-Maori) a major policy issue. For a number of years it has also had a policy of moving people with mental health problems out of institutions and into ‘normalized’ community living.

To be effective, both of these policies require more than providing extra funding. Existing funding might well be adequate if it was invested carefully, on the basis of a recognition of cultural and community group differences.

The key is to think about expenditure on developing community resources and networks as an ‘investment in building social capital’. The terms on which this social capital is built and accessed will vary in different communities and these differences need to be recognized – not just through words but through practice which enables those groups to be directly involved in decisions on the allocation of resources.

A framework for understanding voluntary activity
We have developed a framework based on the giving/sharing distinction for use in workshops to help understand how people in different cultures view and describe their voluntary activity. The central conclusion of the workshop we held was that the key factor in legitimating an activity as being voluntary is motivation rather than type of activity.
For copies of the workshop outline contact David Robinson at
Tuwhakairiora Williams is CEO of the Maori Congress. He can be contacted by email at
David Robinson is Convenor of the Programme on Civil Society, Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand. He can be contacted by email at

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