Filoli board relents on volunteer agreement, lets volunteers opt out of 'release clause'

'Clause' releases Filoli from any liability for injury or damage to volunteers

Filoli's governing board on Thursday morning, Feb. 19, sent an email to all volunteers telling them that they would be allowed to "opt out of the release clause" of a new volunteer agreement that they had been told they must sign by March 1 if they want to continue volunteering.

The email, signed by Toni Barrack, president of Filoli's governing board, says the board met Wednesday, Feb. 18, and "concluded that the Volunteer Agreement is reasonable and appropriate for Filoli and consistent with common practice in today's nonprofit world."

The email, continues, however, to say: "After considerable discussion and input from our advisors, the Governing Board has approved the opportunity for volunteers to opt out of the release clause by crossing out and initialing this clause when signing the agreement. Those who have already signed the agreement will be given the opportunity to re-sign, crossing out this clause if they desire."

The clause in question is the third out of five on a new Volunteer Agreement (PDF) that volunteers had been told they must sign by March 1 if they want to continue as Filoli volunteers.

It says: "Release and indemnification: I agree that I, my successors, assignees, heirs, guardians, and legal representatives will not make a claim of any negligence, personal injury, wrongful death or property damage against Filoli and its employees, officers and agents for claims and liability which was incurred as part of my participation in volunteer activities, including my travel to and from Filoli."

Some volunteers said they had been advised by an attorney not to sign the agreement because it would leave them liable even if the negligence of someone at Filoli had caused injury, or worse, to the volunteer. Attorneys had also advised that signing the clause could leave the volunteer personally responsible if a Filoli guest sued over an injury or property damage, volunteers said.

They also said the release was unfair because it was not required of guests at Filoli, only of volunteers. Only members of Filoli can volunteer.

The email acknowledges that "some of the interactions during the roll out of the volunteer agreement have been disruptive. It will take significant time and effort to work through the many issues created."

The email also says the board "fully supports" its executive director, Cynthia D'Agosta, "in her efforts to restore a productive environment throughout Filoli."

Some volunteers say they are still unhappy. "Half a loaf," one said. Another was more blunt: "This is completely unacceptable."

● Earlier story: Volunteers may quit if forced to sign new agreement (Feb. 18, 2015).

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2 people like this
Posted by helen Palo Alto
a resident of another community
on Feb 19, 2015 at 2:04 pm

Please tell me why any volunteer would "opt-out?

30 people like this
Posted by volunteer
a resident of another community
on Feb 19, 2015 at 3:40 pm

Regarding the letter from Governing Board President, Toni Barrack:

If the Governing Board is willing to send this now, why weren't they willing to offer it back in December when volunteers first voiced their concerns? Instead they repeatedly issued the ultimatum "sign or leave"​ and​ stonewalled all requests to draft a workable modification to the volunteer agreement. ​ It took the "disruption" of an article in The Almanac for them to make this offer.​

The concession they now make​, while welcome, is only made so that they will look like the "good guys​." There are still other issues in the VA that need to be addressed. Why won't they work with a team comprised of staff and volunteers to come up with a win-win document for all concerned? ​If they talk about wanting to rebuild a relationship, that would be a constructive way to start.​

41 people like this
Posted by Member
a resident of another community
on Feb 19, 2015 at 3:55 pm

As a 15 year volunteer at Filoli I am saddened by the anti volunteer attitude that our new ED has brought to the table. This is not the first time she has made her feeling known. Last year volunteers got several critical emails from her. Our new ED was supposed to bring a climate of inclusion and openess to the position. I love Filoli and am deeply distressed with her chosen direction.

38 people like this
Posted by sleepingdog
a resident of another community
on Feb 19, 2015 at 6:15 pm

sleepingdog is a registered user.

The letter helps, but the tone of the letter makes me very suspicious of what the future holds. They start out saying they think the original Volunteer Agreement was fine the way it was written, which it wasn't. In the third paragraph they talk about disruptive interactions. Guess who they are referring to. Certainly not themselves. It doesn't sound very conciliatory to me. Also, they say they fully support the Executive Director, Cynthia D'Agosta in her efforts to restore a productive environment at Filoli. That implies she was not the problem when in fact she was. My guess is they think the volunteers were the problem. Bottom line I still don't trust them.

27 people like this
Posted by volunteer
a resident of another community
on Feb 19, 2015 at 6:38 pm

You are right on the money, SleepingDog!
I second EVERYTHING you say.

19 people like this
Posted by Nature Ed Volunteer
a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Feb 20, 2015 at 8:29 am

Regarding the letter from Governing Board President, Toni Barrack:

Crossing out the liability clause in the Volunteer Agreement does not address other major volunteer concerns: secondary medical insurance for volunteers, a volunteer's liability in case a visitor is injured on his/her watch, and the photo release.

I came to Filoli with good will, to take children on hikes in the woods. And I've worked at Holiday Traditions, helping raise money for Filoli because I wanted to contribute. Sadly, this has become an adversarial relationship, full of toxicity. We volunteers have willingly donated our time, and when we questioned portions of the VA, we were called disruptive.

I'm not sure this relationship is fixable.

14 people like this
Posted by volunteer
a resident of Atherton: other
on Feb 20, 2015 at 11:16 am

The tone of the email from Toni had to be approved by the Executive Director. If not, then the ED is asleep at the helm or has been marginalized. So the TONE that is used is an EXPLANATION not an APOLOGY. They explain that they are doing what their advisers recommended. With all the comments from volunteers in emails to Filoli, and now through posts in the Almanac, the ED simply simply will not address the issue: volunteers feel not valued, and maligned by the ED. I think the Filoli management needs someone who understands human behavior and communications to advise them on how to talk to the volunteers. This mirrors the style of the VA roll out. Where is the ED? These concerns should be her concerns and she should step up and speak to us.

23 people like this
Posted by volunteer
a resident of another community
on Feb 20, 2015 at 12:18 pm

So, because of the pressure from the Almanac article, the administration is now permitting volunteers to cross out the liability clause. OK, but it is still a flawed document. There are other issues which still need to be addressed. The liability was a big one but the job isn't done. Why continue with a flawed document when you could scrap it and start afresh?

None of this makes any sense. The administration was given ample opportunity to respond to volunteers' concerns and could have crafted an agreement that would have been mutually respectful while addressing everyone's needs. Reasonable, caring people would have seized that opportunity. Instead the Executive Director was rigidly adamant, repeating her mantra, "sign or leave."

It was that attitude that forced the majority of volunteers to prepare to leave. In a last desperate move, some went to the press. And because of that action, the volunteers are now receiving a letter which begrudgingly offers a way to make the agreement somewhat palatable while demeaning us at the same time.....creating more bad feelings.

And none of this needed to happen!!!!!! There were many volunteers who earnestly sought to craft a worthy agreement. The Executive Director, Cynthia D'Agosta, and the President of the Governing Board, Toni Barrack, shut them down at every turn. Why? Why not work together? Why not make something good happen? Instead they stonewalled the volunteers.

Toni Barrack's letter squarely places the blame on the volunteers who would not sign. Her letter makes no acknowledgement of the part administration played in this debacle.
Whatever happened to accountability?

9 people like this
Posted by sleepingdog
a resident of another community
on Feb 20, 2015 at 1:50 pm

sleepingdog is a registered user.

Volunteer, what a wonderful and accurate way to describe how the Filoli administration has handled the rollout of the volunteer agreement. A "debacle" completely sums it up one word.

19 people like this
Posted by Volunteer
a resident of another community
on Feb 20, 2015 at 1:54 pm

The Daily Journal online ran an article entitled: "Filoli tweaks volunteer agreement."

In the article, the reporter includes a quote from Executive Director, Cynthia D'Agosta: "D'Agosta took part of the blame for how the agreement was rolled out and how volunteers responded to it."

Interesting.......D'Agosta has never made that statement to the volunteers who actually need to hear it. Clearly she has said that just for the benefit of the newspaper.

Also included in The Daily Journal article is this statement, again by D'Agosta:
"But the National Trust may end up adding the liability clause back into any future agreement, she said."

Pay attention volunteers!

Finally, another quote from D'Agosta: "We are all here for the same thing, to protect and preserve this place. We can't operate without them. We treasure them," D'Agosta said about the volunteers."

Gee, why is it we, the volunteers, don't feel "treasured?" Again, another statement for the benefit of the press that has never been sincerely conveyed to the volunteers.

4 people like this
Posted by David B
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Feb 20, 2015 at 2:15 pm

This is all the fault of our lawsuit-oriented culture. If everyone just lived our life and accepted risks, we wouldn't need all this. But Filoli management has a duty to ask their lawyer what they should do to protect them in the case of any lawsuit from volunteers, and the lawyer does their job and writes a document that protects Filoli, but the volunteers don't like it, and here we are.

They probably want a blanket photo release because they don't want to have to get specific releases every time a photographer is on site and a volunteer happens to be in a photo. But if they don't get a release, someone sues them for being in a photo.


23 people like this
Posted by volunteer
a resident of Woodside: Emerald Hills
on Feb 20, 2015 at 4:20 pm

The above comment by David B. is reasonable coming from an outsider. But the case looks differently to those of us who have lived this nightmare from the inside. Review the comments on the previous article, and you will see that many agree that some sort of legal protection for Filoli against lawsuits makes sense, and that a reasonable agreement on this and other issues could have been worked out. But as you'll see again and again in the comments, what has really rankled is the insistence by the Filoli board and ED that nothing is negotiable, their unwillingness or inability to answer questions, their demeaning implication that questions and dissent were simply the result of a failure to "listen", and their cavalier attitude toward volunteers who have given so much their time freely, and have contributed much to making Filoli feel like a friendly place to visitors. As things stand with the amended VA, Filoli has gained little and lost much. I'm sure the Board and the ED have been convinced in their hearts at every step that they were doing the right thing, but they are apparently plagued with a fatal lack of judgement. Yesterday's change in the VA hints that they have belatedly arrived at a somewhat realistic assessment the situation, but the tone-deafness of the email announcing it suggests that they have learned little. Over the past few weeks, I have talked with about a dozen current and former volunteer leaders, all of them intelligent and reasonable people, and nearly all have expressed dismay to one degree or another with the way the VA has been handled (among other things that have transpired in the past year). All but two had already signed the VA, so one cannot infer the amount of support there is for Filoli management simply by counting the number of signatures. Unless the Governing Board and ED admit to themselves that they chose a really bad strategy, and until they offer a sincere (or at least sincere-sounding) apology to volunteers, they are not in a good position to lead us back to a healed state. If they can show that they have learned from experience, then I think that most of us will be willing to bury the hatchet and move on. Whether it is under a chastened version of the current leadership, or new leadership, it is my hope that Filoli will become once more a genuine community, where transparency in decision-making and diversity of opinion are embraced, and autocratic tendencies are eschewed. I am by nature a conciliator, and I can hardly believe that I'm submitting such preachy words to a public forum. Gentle reader, forgive me.

14 people like this
Posted by volunteer
a resident of another community
on Feb 20, 2015 at 4:36 pm

Dear Volunteer from Woodside: Emerald Hills.
Beautifully stated.
Nothing to forgive.
"Preach" any time you please.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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