Transforming Aotearoa through philanthropy

As we reflect on and celebrate our University’s history, we value the continuing impact of Sir Roy McKenzie’s philanthropic leadership.

Two smartly dressed older people, who are Lady Shirley and Sir Roy McKenzie.
Lady Shirley and Sir Roy McKenzie.

His generosity established enduring taonga that are treasured by Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

The son of Sir John Robert McKenzie—head of the McKenzie’s retail empire which grew to 75 stores and graced the main street of almost every town—Roy learned from his father the key values he’d live by for the rest of his life—that a business should share its prosperity with those who had helped make it prosperous. In 1940 Sir John set up the J R McKenzie Trust to receive one-third of McKenzies’ annual profits each year. The Trust has a long history of helping to build stronger communities, primarily through making grants to community organisations to improve the quality of life for disadvantaged New Zealanders.

As a young man, Roy McKenzie was a talented sportsman whose interests included tennis, tramping, horse racing and breeding, and skiing. He was exhilarated to have scaled the Matterhorn and captained the New Zealand ski team in the 1952 Winter Olympics, the first New Zealand team to attend— and the last to get there by ship!

Sir Roy’s impact on the Deaf community in New Zealand

These days we are used to sign language interpreters sharing the podium with government ministers, but back in the 1980s there was nowhere in New Zealand for these interpreters to be trained. In 1985 Sir Roy McKenzie sponsored overseas training for sign language interpreters, including Associate Professor Dr Rachel McKee.

To support New Zealand’s Deaf community and promote the wider use of New Zealand Sign Language (NZSL), Sir Roy also established the Deaf Development Fund, a fund that supported programmes at Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington to train Deaf users of NZSL to teach their own language. Now almost all Deaf New Zealanders who teach NZSL have come through the Wellington programme.

Sir Roy supported work on the Dictionary of New Zealand Sign Language, which, along with other research carried out at the Deaf Studies Research Unit, was influential in NZSL becoming an official language in 2006. He also endowed undergraduate and postgraduate scholarships at the University, increasing access to tertiary education, which empowered the Deaf community to advocate for themselves and take on leadership roles.

The impact of Sir Roy McKenzie’s philanthropy has transformed New Zealand society, making it more inclusive through the increased profile and accessibility of NZSL. The Victoria University of Wellington Foundation now manages the Deaf Development Fund and will continue to promote Deaf education and NZSL into the future.

Many of Aotearoa’s valued and established institutions owe their beginnings to Sir Roy McKenzie’s far-sighted philanthropic support and encouragement in their early years. The causes he supported were many and varied and included donating the land at Anakiwa to Outward Bound, establishing New Zealand’s first hospice Te Omanga, Birthright, adult education, SPELD, Nga Manu Native Reserve, and several schools for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Roy was always willing to ‘take a punt’ on new ventures or causes that others were reluctant to fund at the time, such as child abuse, women’s refuge, and rape crisis. Rather than the usual filling out of forms and waiting, people seeking funding could meet with Roy personally to explain their need. This gave him the capacity for creative, immediate, and responsive grantmaking. When asked for $1,500 to fund the first Women’s Refuge, he responded, “what you really need is $15,000 and here is a cheque!”

He also gave away a significant amount of money through what the family called the “jacket pocket trust” whenever he came across a cause he considered worthy of support.

Sir Roy was a strong believer in early intervention and treatment for children with disabilities and described it as “a bargain compared with the cost of failure.” His support for the new profession of music therapy encouraged the development of this new area of research and practice in special education and health. The New Zealand School of Music—Te Kōkī now offers New Zealand’s only Music Therapy programme.

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington is proud to be home to The Roy McKenzie Centre for the Study of Families and Children, Awhi Rito. The Centre was launched in February 2003 with the help of a personal donation from Sir Roy and Lady Shirley McKenzie and conducts rigorous, independent research into pressing issues that face whānau, families, and children. Following a reboot in January 2019, in partnership with the Ministry of Social Development and Oranga Tamariki, the Centre is now based in the Wellington School of Business and Government.

Sir Roy was ahead of his time in championing the role of women. When he felt that his all-male trust board needed a woman’s point of view, he appointed Diana Crossan with the clear aim of challenging their thinking. He felt this made a “tremendous improvement” in their decision making.

Despite being one of New Zealand’s greatest philanthropists, Sir Roy disliked the term, preferring to call himself a ‘community volunteer’. However, he is an example of the true meaning of philanthropy—a love of humankind. Compassionate, sensitive, and quiet, he was renowned for his kindness and genuine feeling for people in need. Rather than just handing out money, Sir Roy took a hands-on approach to all the community organisations he funded and was once described as the “millionaire who mucked in.” As such he was proud to win the Wellingtonian of the Year Award in 2004 in the Community Service category.

As Roy explained about his philanthropic work—“you isolate a factor, an injustice or a need, unite with others that care, and do something about it. You live your dream.”

Information from Giving It All Away 2004 documentary produced and directed by Paul Davidson