Story: Voluntary welfare organisations

Page 1. Voluntary welfare organisations – overview

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In New Zealand, people in need receive help from a number of sources, including family assistance, informal community aid, and through the more formal mechanisms of the state and voluntary organisations.

Benevolent societies

Structured forms of support began in New Zealand in the 1840s, through mutual aid organisations such as lodges and friendly societies. From the 1850s, general-purpose benevolent societies were formed to give aid both within and beyond their own membership. Only a few of these societies survived beyond the mid-20th century.


The churches became increasingly active in providing social welfare in the last two decades of the 19th century, focusing especially on orphanage care for children and the moral reform of prostitutes and single mothers. Religious belief remained an important motivation for voluntary charity, both for individuals and for denominations.

During the 20th century the churches expanded their activities into youth and city mission work in the community. After the Second World War they also provided youth hostels and institutional care for the elderly. The churches favoured institutional care because in ‘homes’ they could separate the needy from the sinful, monitor behaviour and model the Christian life. Homes also attracted more donations than community-based care. Institutions remained a key aspect of church welfare until the 1960s and 1970s.

Secular organisations

Secular forms of charity expanded from the late 19th century. Many focused on categories of need, such as disability or family violence, or groups such as returned servicemen or underprivileged children. Voluntary organisations became increasingly specialised, and in the 21st century some were not just providers of services, but also advocates for those they represented.

Daffodils, ribbons, poppies and bandannas

Street collections have always been vital to voluntary organisations for raising funds – and their profiles. Especially since the 1980s, public sympathy has been aroused by the use of potent symbols, from daffodils and pink ribbons to butterflies and bandannas. Perhaps the best-known fundraising symbol in New Zealand is the red poppy sold by volunteers just before Anzac Day to support services for war veterans.

Māori organisations

Some major Māori voluntary organisations emerged during and after the Second World War. In the later 20th century Māori health and welfare agencies, many of them iwi and hapū-based, proliferated. They challenged existing organisations and highlighted obligation within and across cultures as a dimension of volunteering. Iwi services were often linked with other Māori development programmes in employment, housing, tourism and agriculture. Marae increasingly became the base for contracted welfare services for Māori, and a more holistic approach to well-being that incorporated spiritual, physical and mental health was used.

Voluntary organisations and the state

Voluntary welfare has sometimes been criticised as patronising and inefficient, giving aid on a moralistic and inconsistent basis. It has also been presented as more selfless and worthy than services provided by the state, allowing individual citizens to become involved and receive training. Organisations can be more flexible and innovative than state agencies, often experimenting and setting up services in advance of the government. But their relationship with the state has sometimes been tense, especially where they became financially dependent upon government subsidies, grants and contracts. The introduction of rigorous government contracting requirements in the 1990s represented a low point in this relationship. After 2000 a period of review and renegotiation occurred between the state and the voluntary sector.

How to cite this page:

Margaret Tennant, 'Voluntary welfare organisations - Voluntary welfare organisations – overview', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 4 December 2021)

Story by Margaret Tennant, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 18 Sep 2018