William Volker, Kansas City’s Great Anonymous Philanthropist

William Volker Was The First Citizen of Kansas City

William Volker was a German immigrant who became an innovator in business and as a result a wealthy man. Throughout his life, he consistently gave away about a third of his wealth. Much of his wealth he gave away completely anonymously, which earned him the nickname, Mr. Anonymous.

It was probably over 1000 people that Mr. Anonymous financially supported in various ways. Volker in effect started the welfare system in the US when he adopted a local one in Kansas City back in 1909. Later, he changed his mind on the idea when the Pendergast machine co-opted this for their own organization’s gain. Towards the end of his life, he became an important figure in the founding of modern American libertarian scholarship. William Volker has lessons to teach us here in our day. He gave away millions without any need or want of recognition. He was generous with his own employees, his family and his friends, all who revered him. Volker’s name is all over Kansas City –

  • UMKC Volker Campus
  • Volker Memorial Fountain
  • William Volker & Co.
  • Volker Neighborhood

Still, I would bet most regular citizens have never heard his story.

The Volkers Were Immigrants From the Kingdom of Hanover (Modern Day Germany)

William Volker, who was born in 1859, was raised in a German household founded on simple and profound principles-

Whatever you earn, you must save a part for the future Work & Pray That thy alms may be in secret (Matthew 6:4) No man should ever spend more than he makes – The wisdom of the Volker Family

The Volkers came to America because they were unhappy with the direction of the German Empire under Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck. They were worried their sons would have to fight wars they didn’t care about. So the family moved to Chicago, IL just three days after the city’s great fire of 1871. William Volker went on to apprentice with a seller of picture frames and did very well. A natural in business, he took over his mentor’s company by the age of 20. Anticipating that there would be more opportunity for him out west, William Volker & Company opened in Kansas City in 1882.

William Volker & Co. Source: The Kansas City Public Library

William built his first home at 29th and Jefferson in Kansas City. Interestingly, this location is the same place where the iconic statue The Scout sits today.

“The Scout” Source: KC Parks

William Volker Would Work 90 Hour Weeks

He was in to work early, he stayed late. Part of the reason for the hours kept was to listen to those in need who would come and ask for help every day. Viewing this as his duty, Willam always gave them the time, and was always generous with his gifts.

There was no question that the value of giving back to your community and taking care of people as not only the right thing to do, but the only thing that’s going to make you really ultimately happy That was something that we heard all the time. – Mary Cranston (great-niece of William Volker)

William Volker was Kansas City’s original personal finance advocate

Ahead of his time, William Volker instituted a savings plan for the employees at his company. In the early 20th century, these types of plans were non-existent. He offered his employees a 6% return on any funds that they would pay into the plan. The plan was very popular with employees. He was a big fan of forced savings mechanisms. As head of the parole board in Kansas City, he arranged so that every parolee would have a part of their paycheck automatically saved. When the parole expired, the funds were given back to the prisoner. He was a Financial Advisor before the profession ever existed. He helped members of his local community solve their money problems and take steps to improving their situation. I think he’s an inspiration.

He Was a Voluntary Taxpayer

The welfare program was struggling to find funding through the city’s finances. Volker quietly gave $50,000 as working capital for the program to get it off the ground. It was a success, at least in the beginning. Eventually, the program would be taken over by the Tom Pendergast organization.

When Pendergast started to become more powerful and get control of the government, Uncle Will’s perspective was that Pendergast took that social welfare program and made it a tool of his organization. I think that was what really changed his attitude about using the government to take care of people’s basic needs. – Mary Cranston (great-niece of William Volker)

William and Rose Volker of Roselawn

“Roselawn,” as they called their home at 3717 Bell Street, still stands as of this writing. It is located in the Volker Neighborhood in Kansas City.

Roselawn Source: Kansas City Public Library

His Gifts Get Larger As His Wealth Grows

He made a substantial grant to Mercy Hospital. He was one of the founding fathers of the hospital that would become Research Medical Hospital. He helped fund the iconic Liberty Memorial, even though he thought the structure was too ostentatious. He gave them the money anyway. William & Rose never had any children of their own. As a result, they were especially generous to their many nieces and nephews. One nephew, Harold Luhnow, would end up running William Volker & Co., and later The Volker Fund. William Volker’s greatest philanthropic work was The University of Missouri Kansas City. In 1944, Volker had a vision for a university in the middle of the city that regular workers would attend. They could take night classes after their job and get a degree. He would give away $2.6 million to help found this university, (this is approximately $38,000,000 in 2020 dollars). Fittingly, UMKC named their’s the “Volker Campus.”

Among the things I have tried to do in this city, I am sure the University will pay the biggest dividends to the most people… Certainly it is the best investment I have ever made. – William Volker

Anonymous Funding of LIbertarian Academics

As he reached and old age, William Volker would set up a charity fund to give away his wealth. This was long before Warren Buffett or Bill Gates would agree to a similar arrangement. “The Volker Fund” is famous in its own right for launching American libertarian, free market scholarship. Controversially to some (although not to this author), his wealth would go on to support works outside of Kansas City. Through the administration of Volker’s nephew Harold Luhnow, the fund would pay the salaries of important economists such as Ludwig Von Mises, F.A. Hayek, and Murray Rothbard. These men were instrumental in developing libertarian thinking in the United States during a time when these ideas were unpopular.

William Volker is one of Kansas City’s lasting icons

Today, he is honored at the William Volker Memorial Fountain. There is where a St. Martin of Tours statue is tearing his cloak to share with a beggar.

St. Martin of Tours at the William Volker Memorial Fountain Source: City of Fountains Foundation


Andrew Flattery, CFP®

Andy Flattery is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ and Owner of Simple Wealth Planning. He serves young and affluent families that are working to lower their time preference and achieve financial sovereignty. Flattery is the host of The Reformed Financial Advisor Podcast, where he relates stories in Kansas City history to pivotal themes in personal finance. When he’s not helping individuals build wealth, you can catch him playing rec sports, reading Austrian economists, and spending time with his wife and three children.