Without Relationship, We Are Nothing

New Zealand Reflection

(Part 3: Community-Driven Tour 2010 in New Zealand. To read these posts from the beginning, head here.)

New Zealand’s National Not-for-Profit Conference
Every school-aged child in America would recognize the similarity between the story of the Maori – the native people of New Zealand – and the story of Native Americans. Europeans claimed New Zealand as their own, forcing the Maori into smaller and smaller areas, over time significantly reducing their numbers by force and by disease.

In the 1960’s, Maori culture began a resurgence. These days, one sees the Maori language everywhere, from the names of buildings on university campuses to the sign at the airport that simultaneously welcomed us to New Zealand and to Aotearoa – the Maori name for this land.

One of the things we learned in the week with our Consultants Class was the extreme value placed by the Maori on relationship-building.  “It is expected that every session will absolutely open by building a foundation of relationship between those in the room. This is taken very seriously – so seriously that a meeting that fails to take the time for getting acquainted runs the risk of losing credibility,” the participants explained. “In Maori culture, without relationship there is nothing.”

I had already planned my opening keynote for New Zealand’s National Not-for-Profit ConferenceThe Power We Have to Change the World as individuals and as groups. More to the point, I was going to talk about the sources of that power.


Knowing what I now knew about Maori culture, and wanting the conference to be as meaningful as possible for everyone in the room, I wondered whether the conference opening before my talk was going to include a relationship-building piece.

Learning there were no such plans, I rewrote my keynote to begin with some time for connection. After all, one of the strongest sources of our power is each other!  So I told the group just that.

“We all know the power we have to change the world is a collective power. None of us can change the world by ourselves.

So let’s take a moment and get to know each other. Please turn to your neighbor and share a bit about the path that brought you to the work you do. And then share your dreams for the future.”

I anticipated a quiet whispering that might build after several moments. I was wrong.

Conference Conversation

A joyful cacophony arose right from the start. The spirit in the room was so powerful, reminding me of the spirit we find on the very 1st morning of our Consultant Classes.  During that 1st half of Day 1, the participants take as long as it takes to tell their stories, sharing the path that brought them to that room.  When we then ask them to reflect on what stood out for them about the morning, the response is always the same. “We are rarely given the time and the space to really get to know one another, to begin to build relationships.”  When they then look at the syllabus, they see that is just what that portion of the day is called – NOT “Introductions,” but “Community-Building.”

Watching that same effect happen in a room of 250 people, I vowed to incorporate a “relationship-building” opening into all my subsequent talks, not just in New Zealand, but everywhere. Because the wisdom of the Maori is true everywhere – without relationship, we are nothing.

Building Thriving, Engaged Programs
Ask the leaders of community organizations about the strengths vs. weaknesses of the clients who walk through their doors, and you are likely to hear a lecture on the need to focus on strengths, not weaknesses.  Similarly, if you suggest to community leaders that they do a community-wide needs assessment these days, and you are likely to be asked if you would also suggest an asset map?

Thanks in part to the work of the Asset Based Community Development Institute, this sector has gotten very good at realizing we cannot build strength upon weakness; that strength builds upon strength, and both clients and communities have a ton of strengths upon which to build.

Now turn to those same organizational leaders and ask, “So, are your organizations strong?” and you are likely to get a long list of examples that prove how weak they are.

Tell an organizational leader, “Your clients are weak and dependent and they always will be.  Your best hope for them is to sustain,” and that leader would have you marched out of town.  Use those same words to describe that leader’s organization, however, and she is likely to nod in agreement.

“Doing the best we can with what we’ve got” has become the banner for this sector’s work.

HG's keynote

And so after my keynote, I taught a workshop on building thriving, engaged programs.

The workshop guided those leaders to consider the strengths and resources hiding in plain sight within their own organizations.  The people they know. The physical ‘stuff’ they use to do their work. The resources that are actually created by the very implementing of their mission. And of course, the tremendous assets and resources in their communities overall.

We shared stories and examples as we talked about engaging individuals and organizations by asking them for their wisdom, their experience, their ideas.  “Focus first on the vision for the community,” I told the group. “That vision for what is possible in your community is the point where everyone you speak with will have a stake – will care.”

And that brought us back to the Maori wisdom that had begun the day.  When we combine our relationships with our vision for what is possible for our communities, we can create the future

The rest of the conference built upon that theme in every way for me.  Everyone I met was energized about what was possible, and excited that we were not just talking “inspiration” but practical application.  People were seeing ways to reach higher.  One gal told me she was entirely re-planning a new program in her head – one they had just begun and that she now saw could accomplish so much more.

The conference ended on Friday with two highlights, one expected, and one a delightful surprise. The expected treat was something I had looked forward to since a conversation with Meg Wheatley several weeks before the conference.  Knowing we would be bookending the conference – me with the opening, she with the closing – we spoke about our topics and about our work in general.  Her conference-closing remarks on fearlessness and perseverance didn’t disappoint, the proof of that heard when we heard a conference attendee quoting Meg’s remarks several weeks later, in a completely different context.

The surprise part of the day was a treat we sought from that day forward, during the entire remainder of our stay in New Zealand.  After the closing ceremony, the conference coordinators invited us all to partake in kid-sized cups of Hokey Pokey ice cream, complete with little plastic spoons.

Life, most definitely, is good.

For Part 4: Dreaming Ourselves Joyfully Awake – Click here.
Photo Credits:
New Zealand Reflection – HG
Conference Photos – Dimitri

2 Responses to Without Relationship, We Are Nothing

  1. Having twice experienced the wonder of first day immersion class, I’ve been smiling all day imagining the “joyful cacophony” of 250 people sharing! What an amazing experience that must have been and what a wonderful reminder about the importance of relationship building.

  2. Nancy I SO wish you guys could have heard it. Actually, DP taped some of it – maybe I’ll add that somewhere so you can all hear how amazing it was. What was fun as well is that the session moderator was still on the stage with me, and so he and I got to spend some time getting to know each other as well.

    As Mark Riffey noted to me on Twitter re: this post, it is not uncommon for folks to say, “Take a moment and introduce yourself to your neighbor.” It is NOT common to provide the thread that immediately establishes commonality – we are all here because we care, so share what you care about!