Outrageous Abundance

— some thoughts for the Gifts Conversation

by vivian Hutchinson

June 2021 23 min read download as Masterclass PDF

THE TARANAKI MUSEUM, Puke Ariki, has an online catalogue of its collections and I was browsing through this list one day and came across a photo of a paua shell. What surprised me was that I thought I recognised it. And when I looked deeper into the accession details in the catalogue, I could see why. The paua shell was one that Aunty Marj had brought to the museum.

A large paua shell (haliotis iris, or rainbow abalone) Puke Ariki Accession No. TM2000.133

In the 1950s and 60s, especially in working-class New Plymouth families, it was not unusual for people to have these rainbow-coloured paua shells in their homes where they were being used as ashtrays. But Aunty Marj had not brought this shell to the museum for the smokers. She had brought it to collect koha.

As an active citizen, Aunty Marj was an early supporter of the Taranaki Museum, the New Plymouth Public Library, and the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery. She thought it was important that these civic institutions had authentic connections with the local Maori community, and she acted as an unofficial volunteer and adviser for many decades, becoming a friend and mentor to many of the Directors and Managers.

If she was at a public meeting, you would not be surprised to see Aunty Marj reach into her kete and pull out a paua shell, and invite people to contribute to the running of that meeting, or to funding the purpose that we were meeting about.

Of course she knew that the Taranaki Museum was funded by our local body rates, and that the people she was supporting there were paid staff members. But Aunty Marj was demonstrating the importance of koha as an everyday cultural practice, and she was not going to stop doing it just because this was a publicly-funded institution.

Koha is the act of gifting and generosity, and it is not always a matter of money. It is an expression of a living economy which reflects your values and your deepest intentions. The everyday practice of koha is the way that active citizens turn those values and intentions into the tangible assets of community.

I’m sure that the paua itself didn’t really matter to Aunty Marj, and she would probably be quite amused to find this artefact officially listed in the museum collections. What really mattered to her was the continuing practice of koha, and how this cultural understanding of our gifts and generosity is an essential part of the craft of community-building.

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I FIRST WENT to Parihaka as a teenager in the 1970s to support Aunty Marj and other elders as they welcomed and looked after a constant stream of visitors to the marae.

During this time, Aunty Marj was leading the restoration of the historic Te Niho o te Atiawa dining room at Parihaka so that it could become a new venue for welcoming visitors. When the restoration was complete, Aunty Marj symbolically gave the key of the house to the “students and teachers of the world” in the hope that it would continue to serve as a place of inspiration and learning.

In the years that followed, the elders of Te Niho generously extended their hospitality to hundreds of new visitors. They introduced a whole new generation of people to the legacy of the Parihaka prophets of peace Te Whiti o Rongomai and Tohu Kakahi, and their acts of non-violent resistance in the face of war, colonisation, and the legislative theft of Māori land.

Te Niho o te Atiawa Meeting House at Parihaka Marae 1977 (photo by vivian Hutchinson)

At the time, I was curious about how the elders of Te Niho were paying for everything. I didn’t see anyone sitting down at the kitchen table and filling in funding applications. How were they making ends meet? Surely they couldn’t be keeping the meeting house open on the back of their pensions?

What I discovered was that, yes, they were paying for many things themselves. But they were also able to provide their welcome and manuhiritanga because they were part of a cultural economy of koha.

When there is a gathering at the marae, people don’t pay registration fees as you would at a Pākehā conference. You come and leave behind a koha. This is not a market-based transaction, because you are invited to contribute an amount according to your ability to pay. And regardless of what you do pay, the hospitality extended to you is abundant, and generous.

Koha is not the same thing as what a “donation” means in modern society. The word is not a direct translation because there are relationships implied in koha which are a much more complicated thing. 

Koha is a tangible form of reciprocity and trust which has an economics of its own. It is not a commercial transaction based on a fear that we won’t make ends meet. It is a cultural form of economics that is based on our gifts and the weaving of those gifts into the fabric of our common lives.

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THE ECONOMICS OF COMMUNITY is something that active citizens are rediscovering and recovering for our modern age. It is not an easy thing to re-establish because community-based cultures have a whole different narrative about economics – one that is fundamentally different to consumer capitalism.

Community economics is based on our gifts, rather than our appetites and desires. A community-builder is someone who invites their friends and neighbours to focus on their gifts, and not their deficiencies, and then invites those gifts to work for the common good.

In contrast, the marketplace economics of our mainstream culture is trapped in a mind-set of scarcity and insatiability. It is a consumer system that relies on keeping things scarce, and then has a vested interest in people never finding complete satisfaction.

The ability to be blind to our own gifts is one of the great achievements of a consumer society – because then we think we have to go out and buy what we are imagining we don’t already have. 

The economics of a healthy community understands the importance of the practical limits that exist in both our natural environment and our social systems. Yet, within these limits, it also recognises that there is plenty of creative room for abundance and generosity.

Our guide to this creativity is the natural world, where there are many examples of an intelligent and elegant dance going on between the limits and the fruitfulness.

You only need to see an apricot tree in flower to realise that nature itself practices an outrageous abundance.

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OUR GIFTS ARE not at all scarce. But most of the time we are just not seeing them and certainly not valuing them.

I once had several women attending the Masterclass where they talked about the meetings they were having about growing their local community organisation.

One of them said, “We started with nothing.” Another remarked, “There were lots of meetings and families who turned up, but nothing happened.” The third person commented, “We needed a legal constitution so that we could apply for government funding.”

Each of these statements was an example of how they and their community of friends and family members were trapped in a form of scarcity thinking. They had not brought their creativity to their limits. They had gone to the trouble of calling their meeting, but there was not the leadership there that could name and value the gifts that were already in the room.

Here are just three of the gifts in which that were already obviously abundant:

– the ability to associate with one another and bring goodwill to that association.

– the ability to offer and keep offering hospitality, especially to strangers

– the ability to get into conversation with one another about the resources and assets that they already have in the group

The job of a community-builder is to release these primary resources, first. And then notice and celebrate that they are already abundant.

No community group has ever started with nothing. And if they think that the starting point is to find someone who will rush off and fill in a funding application, then they are completely missing the point. 

I have put in many funding applications myself and served on boards that have made funding decisions. Yet I recognise that community-based economics has a different perspective on the concept of charity, or economic patronage.

I have also become wary about those types of philanthropy which are just another way of buying things without making any ongoing commitments to a relationship.

Some years ago, I was asked to speak to a network of community groups in the South Island. They were all involved in employment creation or social services, and were doing great work. I heard many familiar stories of how these groups were constantly struggling with the finances. They specifically wanted me to talk about fundraising, so I thought I would start off by asking a few provocative questions:

How many of you are putting your own money into your activities? How many of your trustees are prepared to back you financially? How many of you speak to your friends about what you are doing and that you need financial help?

The responses were fascinating. Only a few of the groups said they were putting their own money in, or had trustees that would be prepared to. This begged a further question: Why do you expect other people to invest in your vision for your community if you are not prepared to invest in it yourself?

I have asked these questions in other public meetings and have received similar responses. People tell me, "Get real – this is my job!" Or they say, "I give lots of time – do you really expect me to give money as well?"

We seem to have very few hang-ups about being generous with our time. So why is it almost unthinkable for some of our friends and colleagues to consider being just as generous with their own money? I suspect it is related to a similar form of scarcity thinking.

I’m not suggesting the people who set up community groups should expect or try to pay for everything themselves. Building strategic partnerships with funders is an important challenge to the community sector, and a challenge that all of us can still learn a lot about.

But I do believe that the people with the most interest in a vision for a community project should be the first to start the ball rolling in terms of their own financial contributions. It is not so much the amount of money that is important here – but more a recognition that the critical starting point is a conversation we can have about our gifts and our generosity.

In my own experience, this conversation gives a whole different sense of ownership, alignment and commitment to the projects that we are trying to make possible.

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I BECAME A philanthropist when I first went on the dole. This was the early 1980s, and I had moved back to New Plymouth after living in Auckland for a few years. Unemployment was rising everywhere, and I decided that this was an important issue for me to focus on.

The Salvation Army was just starting their first work schemes and I joined their work. What I found was that there was plenty of government funding available if we wanted to organise work gangs cutting scrub on the edges of town – good work, which kept us satisfied for quite some time.

But there was little money available if you wanted to do something deeper about the issue of unemployment. And, in those days, I was fighting for the right of unemployed people to have access to training programmes that could increase their employability.

So when my supervisor contract ran out, I went on the dole to support my work and vision for wider community action on employment. Actually, I just kept on turning up to my office at the Salvation Army, and I continued to get tremendous support from them for the projects I was trying to create.

But going on the dole did bring up all sorts of feelings in me about my self-worth, my place in the community, and how my own creative contribution was valued in the face of the status quo.

It also brought up feelings in me about my attitudes to money. I started to think more about the nature of abundance and my own generosity, and what had I been doing to support the gifts and possibilities around me.

It was at this time that an unusual Australian accountant called Lionel Fifield was doing a lecture tour of New Zealand. His presentations centred around personal growth and self discovery, and he also spoke about our personal relationship with money. When he came and spoke in New Plymouth, I found his message — and his personal example — quite challenging. Lionel’s view was that, when it comes to money, many people’s lives became stuck when they only see themselves as receivers. He told powerful stories of how people and communities construct all sorts of blocks surrounding the giving and receiving of money in their lives.

His view was that an ungenerous person was like a dam in the flow of money and their own gifts. Just as it is a natural law that most of us need an income to survive, so too is it a natural law that we need to practice generosity in our lives.

At the time, I could see how his stories related to my own experience of welfare dependency. I could see that the “stuck-ness” came as much from solely defining yourself as a receiver, as it did from being in a structural “welfare trap”.

Lionel Fifield advocated tithing — and it was the first time I had heard of this term outside of a Christian context. He wasn’t, however, talking about giving money to a church but about giving 10% of your income to the current point of inspiration in your life and to the people and organisations who you think are doing great work for the common good.

Lionel himself was an inspirational speaker, but was quite unlike similar leaders of the 1980s New Age movement who were marketing “abundance consciousness” and all sorts of pyramid money schemes. This fairly modest accountant made it quite clear that he had no vested interest in changing anybody, nor did he ever claim to be right. He also didn’t charge a cent for his lectures, but had a container at the back of the room available for donations.

At the time, I would have to admit that his lecture made me quite grumpy. I spoke to him afterwards, and complained that, “You’ve never lived on the dole in Taranaki!”

At this time the unemployment benefit was about $66 per week. I had no savings in the bank, and I certainly didn’t feel abundant. In fact, if I was honest, I would have to admit that I was having to face my own challenges with stuck-ness and depression.

Lionel challenged me to give the tithing a go, which I did. Each week I put $6 aside, and when it had accumulated to $100 I sent off an anonymous cheque to someone or a group who I thought was doing good work.

There was no magical thinking about all this. I just lived on less, while choosing to share in a way that makes a difference. There was no bargain going on that involved a faith that “... if I give, then so shall I receive”. It was just a simple and practical way I could play my part in making what I value come alive in the world.

And, in the meantime, something did indeed lift inside me. I found myself in a wholly different head-space. It did feel like a dam was opening and a river was flowing again. Yes, I was still living on the dole, and had all the limits that this implied ... but I was also a contributing part of the flow of an outrageous abundance.

So from then on, tithing just became part of the framework of how I ran my personal finances and remains so today. It is not a tax on my income, or a burden. It is my first 10%, not my last. It is a delight. It is a modest and personal contribution to making things happen, and to stepping up to an economics of possibility.

My decisions about what I contribute to are a mixture of regular payments to some groups I support, and also some more random contributions to things that are inspiring me at the moment.

There are lots of New Zealanders who tithe for the common good from their personal income, and my personal story is by no means a unique example. Many people are choosing to take up tithing as a way of affirming the importance of generosity and personal philanthropy in their own lives.

Over the past thirty years, this has created its own economy for community initiatives. Many of the projects that have emerged out of my friendship networks have first of all been financially supported by our shared koha economy – long before we put in any funding applications into a government department or a large philanthropic foundation.

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WHEN TALKING about an economy of generosity with Aunty Marj, she was quick to caution me that koha is not a fundraising strategy. It is something deeper than just raising money for your projects.

Aunty Marj told me that Taranaki Maori had a different tikanga or protocol around koha, compared to iwi from other parts of the country. At Taranaki gatherings, a koha was not placed on the marae for all to see, but it was a much more discrete exchange that took place between visitors and the people of the marae.

She talked about a fundraising event that she went to that was raising money for the refurbishing of a marae. She was a part of two bus-loads of Taranaki elders and their families which had travelled to support the marae and renew their kinship linkages. And as was usual, the koha for the marae was collected on the buses on the way to their destination.

When they arrived, they found that the marae was decked out like a fairground with all sorts of activities and stalls. In the centre was a caravan with a speaker system playing loud music – and also announcing the donations that had arrived with various visitors.

A Taranaki kaumatua went over to the caravan and handed over their koha saying, “We would prefer no announcement, thank you.” But as he was walking away from the caravan, an announcement did blast out from the loud-speaker, profusely thanking the Taranaki visitors and stating the amount of money that had been contributed to the fundraiser.

The kaumatua was immediately incensed. He had not traveled all this way to come to a fundraising gameshow. He turned around, marched back into the caravan, and grabbed back his envelopes of money. He then went up to a nearby hill and threw it all into the air, and stood and watched as the money-notes floated all over the marae, and was chased by the kids.

I immediately burst into laughter when I first heard this story and imagined the comedy of the scene. But when I turned to Aunty Marj I could see that she was not amused. She recognised that it was no laughing matter what the kaumatua had done. His actions were his affirmation that the Taranaki koha was not part of a fundraising strategy. Their koha was an expression of something much more valuable. It was a tangible assertion of a whakapapa, a connection, and a relationship that had endured through tough circumstances over many generations.

That koha brought with it a much deeper economy – a living economy – and a much older wisdom about how possibilities happen.

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I HAVE OFTEN wondered: What would it look like if generosity was stitched into the very identity of ourselves as New Zealanders?

New Zealand is already an abundant nation, but in too many ways we are not yet a generous one.

The gap between our existing abundance and our potential generosity is also a cultural gap. It has to do with how both giving and receiving are already stitched into our identity as New Zealanders. It has to do with our personal and collective attitudes as to what is enough, and our hopes and fears for the future.

Our job as active citizens is to respect the practical limits of our environment and the sensible boundaries of social systems that can give us well-being. Yet, within these limits, our job is also to find the creative ways we can stitch our generosity into how we run our personal and family finances, our community organisations, our schools, our churches, our marae, our businesses, and our governance.

The conversation that stretches between our boundaries and our gifts is how we get to awaken a generous nation.


Notes and Links

vivian Hutchinson QSM is a community activist and social entrepreneur who has worked mainly on issues of race relations, social justice, job creation and philanthropy. He is a co-founder of Community Taranaki www.taranaki.gen.nz, and author of How Communities Heal — stories of social innovation and social change (2012). He is also one of the creators of How Communities Awaken - Tū Tangata Whenua - a Masterclass for Active Citizenship which is run in partnership with Tu Tama Wahine o Taranaki www.tutamawahine.org.nz.

First published online in June 2021

This paper Outrageous Abundance is part of a larger series of essays by vivian Hutchinson entitled How Communities Awaken. For more information, visit www.taranaki.gen.nz/hca

Tū Tama Wahine o Taranaki and Community Taranaki were awarded the ACE (Adult and Community Education Aotearoa) 2020 Award for Community Programme of the Year for the Masterclass for Active Citizenship. For more information, visit www.tutamawahine.org.nz/masterclassguide

The Puke Ariki online catalogue data for the paua shell from Aunty Marj is at https://collection.pukeariki.com/objects/28054

Lionel Fifield is the co-founder of the Relaxation Centre of Queensland, a unique adult educational organisation. Lionel has travelled extensively throughout Australia, and in many other countries, speaking to diverse audiences on a range of themes including prosperity, self esteem, honesty, relationships, laughter, listening and being true to one’s self. He is the author of several books, including Your Partnership with Life (pub 1990). The Relaxation Centre, cnr Brookes and Wickham Streets, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane, Queensland 4006, Australia.

ISBN 978-1-92-717640-5 This paper is licensed for distribution under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 New Zealand License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/nz/deed.en