William Volker made his fortune manufacturing home furnishings, and dedicated the overwhelming majority of that fortune to charity. He gave generously to causes and institutions throughout his adopted hometown of Kansas City—and, to the best of his ability, on the condition of anonymity. At one point, he partnered with Kansas City public officials, hoping to increase the effectiveness of his giving; to his horror, he discovered that city leaders saw charity not as a way to help people help themselves, but rather as a form of patronage and power. The experience led Volker to a deeper appreciation for private initiative—an appreciation that found expression in his support for the study and promotion of classical liberalism.
Born near Hanover, Germany in 1859, William Volker was taught early in life to work hard and love God. His father entrusted him with responsibility beyond his years, as when he charged the five-year-old boy with feeding the family’s cows. His mother, pious and kind, provided religious instruction, and William read the Scriptures every day for the rest of his life. When he was 12 years old, war broke out between France and Prussia; fearing William would be conscripted, his family left Germany. They immigrated to the United States, settling in Chicago just days after the Great Fire of 1871.
Volker departed Chicago at age 23, after having saved enough capital to start a small business in Kansas City, Missouri. William Volker & Company sold home furnishings—picture frames, window shades, moldings. After a few difficult years, the business thrived; it posted profits every year except for 1930-31. By 1906, at the age of 47, Volker was a self-made millionaire. He would have acquired his first million sooner had he not made it his lifelong practice to give away (by one estimate) about one-third of his annual income.
Early every morning after Volker arrived at work, he made himself available to employees, friends, and callers facing problems. He gave many thousands of small gifts to people with immediate needs—a pair of new dentures for an elevator operator, tuition for a hardworking college student. So personally involved was he that he wrote out every check himself, so that each gift could be kept confidential. While he tried to ascertain that there was a real need of assistance before offering aid, Volker would give a person the benefit of the doubt. He never wanted to risk denying help to someone in true need.
Deeply invested in the civic life of Kansas City, Volker supported scores of institutions and causes, building a research laboratory, diagnostic clinic, and nurse’s residence at the Research Hospital, acquiring a collection of Chinese art for the Nelson-Atkins Museum—even purchasing two camels for the Swope Park Zoo. Perhaps his most visible contribution was to the University of Kansas City. Volker was the principal driver behind the creation of the school, donating 40 acres for the campus and endowing it with millions of dollars, including lead gifts for the university library, president’s house, and science building.
Volker concluded that “government must be restricted to those activities which can be entrusted to the worst citizens, not the best.”
Between 1908 and 1915, Volker worked closely with the city government. In 1908, he helped found the Kansas City Board of Pardons and Paroles, which oversaw the process of releasing prisoners. He made it a condition of parole that employment was arranged before release—“no job, no parole”—and that parolees agree to garnished wages, with the deducted funds deposited into a savings account. Impressed with the success of this program, he began to look for other ways to partner with local authorities.
In 1910, Volker led the creation of the Board of Public Welfare, the first municipal welfare department in the country. Excited about continuing his philanthropy through the new agency, Volker was surprised to learn that the city failed to adequately fund its commitments. He quietly contributed $50,000 to make up the difference. Almost immediately, local politicians—most notably, Tom Pendergast, the machine boss in Kansas City—began using the funds to further their partisan interests. After Volker retired in 1918, the board became an all-but openly political enterprise. The episode taught Volker, he later explained, that “political charity isn’t charity.” He concluded that “government must be restricted to those activities which can be entrusted to the worst citizens, not the best.”
Volker returned to his extensive program of private philanthropy, which he continued until his death in 1947. When Friedrich von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was published in 1944, Volker discovered a thinker who made sense of his experience. Disillusioned by the failures of the Board of Public Welfare, he began funding scholars, writers, and teachers who could champion the cause of free enterprise, individual initiative, and limited government. He started supporting free-market and libertarian institutions, including the Foundation for Economic Education, the Institute for Humane Studies, and what became the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. He underwrote Hayek’s salary at the University of Chicago, and paid a stipend that enabled Ludwig von Mises to teach at New York University.
Perhaps the most consequential check William Volker ever wrote was dated May 7, 1945. Made to Friedrich A. Hayek for $2,000, it underwrote the travel expenses for 17 American scholars to attend the first meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society. Volker did not live to see all of the Mont Pelerin Society’s accomplishments. With that assistance to a group of penurious writers and scholars, however, he helped launch an international network that distinguished itself in defending freedom in the West during the last half of the 20th century.
Mont Pelerin Society members periodically gathered and debated to refine their ideas and encourage one another. Eight members would go on to win the Nobel Prize in economics—four of whom, thanks to Volker, attended the first meeting. According to Nancy Hoplin and Ron Robinson, 22 of the 66 economic advisors to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 presidential campaign were members. In Western Europe, three members of the Mont Pelerin Society became heads of state.
Closer to home, the people of Kansas City continue to honor Volker today. There is a Volker Elementary School, a Volker Memorial Fountain, and a Volker Boulevard. The University of Missouri–Kansas City Volker Campus is named for him, as is the Volker Neighborhood Association. This local outpouring is a testament to William Volker’s remarkable generosity, not least since he labored so diligently to adhere to the biblical precept that his “alms may be in secret.”
- David Boutros, “The William Volker and Company,” Western Historical Manuscript Collection–Kansas City (July 2007)
- Herbert C. Cornuelle, Mr. Anonymous: The Story of William Volker (Caxton Printers, 1951)
- “William Volker and His Nephew Harold Luhnow” in Nicole Hoplin and Ron Robinson, Funding Fathers: The Unsung Heroes of the Conservative Movement (Regnery, 2008)