Editorial: What's behind the Filoli fiasco?


Administrators of the historic Filoli estate have a lot to answer for with their strangely inept handling of introducing a first-ever volunteer agreement -- an ill-advised, five-item document that has sparked a rebellion among the people who donate their time and energy to keeping the venerable institution open. The development, as reported in the Almanac's cover story, "Trouble in paradise," is a distressing display of managerial hubris and disconnection that have nearly toppled -- and still may dismantle -- a volunteer edifice seen as a model for other organizations.

Filoli has always been heavily volunteer-dependent, and in recent times has operated with a 1,300-strong force of volunteers, who must become dues-paying members of the organization to offer their free services. They function as docents, trail-blazers and nature educators, and offer many other services that keep Filoli's doors open and outdoor attractions accessible to the 120,000 yearly visitors to the Woodside estate.

Many of those volunteers now say they will leave at the end of the month after being told they must sign the agreement by March 1. According to a number of them who spoke to the Almanac, their decision was based in part on advice from their attorneys.

But in addition to the flaws in the agreement itself, the manner in which Filoli's staff and board imposed the new terms on volunteers was ham-handed and corrosive. A number of volunteers told the Almanac that management's handling of the matter has severely damaged goodwill, and that even if concessions are made, they are considering taking their volunteer services elsewhere.

This was an avoidable situation. According to Filoli board member Heidi Brown, terms of the agreement were crafted and approved last year. "We figure that at least a hundred pairs of eyes have seen this document," she told the Almanac.

The problem is that those eyes belonged to management, members of the Filoli governing board, and Friends of Filoli executive board members. The agreement was to be introduced to volunteer committees in January -- after it was approved. And yes, there is something wrong with this picture. A top-down model of management is questionable in many if not most enterprises, but it is potentially disastrous in an organization so heavily dependent on volunteers.

Making matters worse was the apparent lack of willingness on the part of management and the board to discuss the agreement with concerned volunteers once word got out about some of the objectionable terms. Ms. Brown said that the filtering down of information before the terms were supposed to be announced meant volunteers got the document "without background, context or explanation," and that the questions pouring in were too numerous to answer.

Ms. Brown noted that Filoli leaders must now do some fence-mending and "a better job communicating going forward." No argument there. And all eyes will be on them in this regard. But the fact that executive director Cynthia D'Agosta, who apparently has been in the forefront of changing volunteer policy, was unwilling to talk to the Almanac about the situation is not a good indicator that communications will improve.

On its website, Filoli offers enticements in an attempt to recruit new volunteers, promising "an environment where your contributions are valued." The still-unfolding fiasco that threatens Filoli's ability to accommodate the tens of thousands of visitors to the estate each year calls that statement into question.

Filoli leaders would do well to consider the cautionary words of writer Cynthia Ozick: "We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude."

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45 people like this
Posted by Bob
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Feb 25, 2015 at 1:00 pm

Given the handling of this incident, one has to wonder what other situations have been poorly managed. Perhaps Filoli would be better off with an executive director who appreciated its most valuable resource and who understands the landscape of the institution.

25 people like this
Posted by resident
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Feb 25, 2015 at 1:35 pm

This a common problem at volunteer-oriented organizations. Management jobs are usually awarded via nepotism or to reward donors. Many of these people would not be qualified to handle similar jobs in the professional world. What Filoli needs to do right now is take a hard look at the quality of their managers and start cleaning house. If they really do have 50 managers who reviewed this document, then surely many of those people are unnecessary.

27 people like this
Posted by SteveC
a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Feb 25, 2015 at 2:33 pm

SteveC is a registered user.

It seems to me that some managers need to be terminated. The start can be Cynthia D'Agosta. Unwilling to talk is not a way to communicate. Let management do all the work the volunteers did in the past and see what that gets them. I am sure the employees would be covered with workman compensation. Doesn't seem logical to me that the organization wouldn't have insurance to cover injuries to volunteers.

28 people like this
Posted by pearl
a resident of another community
on Feb 25, 2015 at 4:16 pm

pearl is a registered user.

Thank you, Almanac, for this Editorial. The detailed outline of events to date is right on, and much appreciated. I am of the mind a whole new management team needs to be brought in if the current undesirable situation is ever going to be turned around, and, the sooner the better.

31 people like this
Posted by volunteer
a resident of another community
on Feb 25, 2015 at 4:58 pm

What Heidi Brown doesn't seem to get is that even if the volunteer agreement had been presented WITH "background, context, (and) explanation," the wording of the agreement would still have raised questions and concerns because the meager and misleading explanations offered by the administration did nothing whatsoever to address the concerns raised. When the volunteers restated their questions in hopes of getting answers, the administration's response was to not respond.....except for "sign or leave" by March 1.

20 people like this
Posted by Jane Parks-McKay
a resident of another community
on Feb 25, 2015 at 8:36 pm

I hold Filoli very close to my heart and have for years. It was a place that my late Mother and I enjoyed for the Holidays. I still go as often as I can to remember those times, and to enjoy this majestic place. At one time I thought about volunteering. That was then, this is now. The compassion that the volunteers I have met over the years does not equal anything I've ever seen. If given the opportunity to sign this agreement, I can assure you I would not sign it. There are many other places that these fine people can give their time too and in the end, it will be Filoli's loss. Very very tragic. I hope that in the eleventh hour before March 1st, that common sense prevails and a huge apology be issued to the volunteers. Still even if that happened, there is much damage control and the PR that has come out of this will take quite a bit to repair. Everyone are in my prayers through this.

14 people like this
Posted by Carol
a resident of Woodside School
on Feb 25, 2015 at 9:27 pm

Unfortunately, this is just one of several examples of poor management in the past several years. They hired an outside firm a few years ago to try to address some of the issues but they have selective hearing and ignore the real problems. D'Agosta was not a good choice for ED as we see from this fiasco but they can never fix the problems as long as there are two chiefs - the Executive Director and the President of the Friends (who changes every two years). No organization can function properly unless there is one person in charge who takes the responsibility for policy decisions and how the organization is run. Filoli has two and it simply won't work - ever.

25 people like this
Posted by Volunteer
a resident of Woodside: Woodside Hills
on Feb 26, 2015 at 9:28 am

This editorial captures the problem perfectly. It's time for a change in two areas: the Executive Director and the governing board members who thought that dismissing the concerns of the volunteer community was the right approach. There is no skill here in managing a sizable organization where the largest share of labor comes from volunteers.

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

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