An Auckland surgeon and his wife have donated $1 million to help Pasifika students qualify as doctors.

Aucklanders John and Rose Dunn are a little self-conscious about having an endowment fund named after themselves.

Their $1 million John and Rose Dunn Pasifika Fund will contribute to course fees and accommodation costs through the University of Auckland School of Medicine Foundation.

Although the Dunns have always been philanthropic, they're normally quiet givers and were reluctant to be interviewed or have the Herald name the amount donated.

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But speaking out about the donation might encourage others to think about giving back, no matter what the amount, John Dunn said.

READ MORE: The big hitters: Which kiwis give, why and why not.

"I have witnessed the strong exemplar effect as it stimulates others to give. This is not seen with anonymous donations."

The couple said they in turn had been motivated to give by observing the generosity of people they knew.

"It felt right at this time of life. It is quite gratifying how well received this gesture has been," Rose Dunn said.

Concerned at the extremely low number of Pasifika doctors in New Zealand (around 2%), John and Rose Dunn decided to help redress the balance.

Although Maori medical students were holding their own and doing well, Pasifika students were not, John Dunn said. Failure to complete or pass the six-year medical degree was mainly due to financial pressures and lack of mentoring.

"It's a very demanding course. There's a huge amount of content and you need to be totally focused. They (Pasifika students) don't have the support to get through it all."

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Helping young Pasifika people is a cause close to their hearts. When John Dunn was a child, he discovered his great-great-grandmother migrated to New Zealand from the Cook Islands in 1840 with her English sailor husband.

Some of their children returned to the Cook Island which means the Dunns have relatives there and the couple visit regularly.

Auckland surgeon John Dunn has been operating in the Cook Islands for the past 15 years. Photo / Jonathan Milne
Auckland surgeon John Dunn has been operating in the Cook Islands for the past 15 years. Photo / Jonathan Milne

For the past 15 years Dunn has donated his time and equipment to perform ground-breaking laparoscopic surgery at Rarotonga Hospital. He and Texan surgeon Dr Erik Wilson have performed endoscopic sleeve gastroplasties (ESGs), a non-invasive technique that involves inserting a light and camera on a long tube down the throat, and sewing the front of the patient's stomach to the back.

Obesity is an issue Dunn is on a mission to conquer. For every stomach operation he performs in the Cook Islands, he'll tell anyone who will listen that obesity shortens lives by 10 years, and causes major problems like heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, and kidney disease, and is linked to 13 different cancers.

"But the solution for that has to come from their own community and Pasifika doctors."

John Dunn (centre) performs an endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty at Rarotonga Hospital with Dr Erik Wilson from Texas (right). Photo / supplied.
John Dunn (centre) performs an endoscopic sleeve gastroplasty at Rarotonga Hospital with Dr Erik Wilson from Texas (right). Photo / supplied.

He is, however, hopeful for the future. He thinks there are a couple of "lost generations" who will be plagued by health problems due to obesity but that the younger generations coming through are "smarter" .

"They can be leaders in society and try to change this culture of eating themselves to death."

Being passionate about a cause helps when deciding how much to give and to what, the couple say.

"It is very important to us that we have a connection with who we give to," Rose Dunn said.

The Dunns are avid art collectors, are patrons of the Auckland Art Gallery and regular donors to the gallery's foundation. Rose founded the Fetu Ta'i patrons group to support Pasifika artists through the Tautai Pacific Arts Trust and she supports several individual artists.

They also support the Mercy Hospice which cared for both sets of parents before they died.

The couple own a small resort on Rarotonga which Rose is in the process of refurbishing. The majority of profits from the resort will go to local philanthropic causes in education, health and the arts.

With regard to philanthropy, the couple also advise givers to trust those administering the fund to use it wisely, take advice from experts in the field, and don't make the donation too specific.

"Donate to haematology rather than leukaemia specifically," John Dunn said.

And run it past your children, Rose added.

"Our children are excited by it (the donation) and gave us good ideas on how they'd like to see it used."

And finally, advice from John Dunn: "Someone once told me that philanthropy doesn't count until it hurts. Therefore choose a level of giving where it is significant. "