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."