Guest opinion: A volunteer's view on the turmoil at Filoli


By Rod Boucher

In response to the turmoil over the recent rollout of Filoli's new volunteer agreement, Heidi Brown, president of the Friends of Filoli, has stated in an Almanac article: "We figure that at least a hundred pair of eyes have seen this document."

There may have been a hundred pair of eyes that have seen the document, but clearly not one pair of those eyes has "seen" the problems with the document. On the other hand, some 800 volunteers, well over half of the volunteer workforce, did "see" and immediately made their concerns known. They asked questions; wanted clarification; offered suggestions. Would this not alone have been enough to alert all those hundred pair of eyes that there were issues with what was written?

According to Heidi Brown, there were too many questions to answer: Ms. Brown said she and Executive Director Cynthia D'Agosta tried to answer volunteers' questions, but there were too many of them. "We'd have to have a staff working to answer every single question," she said.

Is not a free work force of 1,300 people worth the effort? How is a comment like that supposed to make the volunteers feel?

Those who refused to sign the volunteer agreement saw two major problems with the agreement. One was with the content, the other was with the tone.

The content puts all the risk and liability on the shoulders of the volunteer while Filoli, by omitting in the agreement a written declaration of how it will protect the volunteer, bears none. One of the most egregious items, the Release and Indemnification clause, has been temporarily removed as the volunteers have, for the moment, been given the opportunity to cross it out; but other issues remain.

Answers to the remaining concerns are still not forthcoming: not by the executive director, the governing board, or the Friends of Filoli. Due diligence on the issue has not been provided by any of the above nor by the National Trust for that matter. Are lack of transparency, refusal to dialogue, and inability to be accountable the going trends of the 21st century?

Not only can they not "see," neither can they "hear." The second problem has had to do with the tone of the volunteer agreement. There is nothing in the document itself nor in the way it has been presented that speaks to any respect, regard, or appreciation held for the phenomenal workforce Filoli has in its corps of volunteers. It was cold, harsh, and without grace.

The fact that the administration refuses to give complete and thoughtful answers to the concerns expressed, the fact that they care so little for the volunteers that they are incapable of offering a sincere apology for what has transpired, only confirms that the volunteers are not worth their time.

Bringing Filoli into the 21st century has resulted in leaving her soul in the past.

Rod Boucher has been a volunteer docent at Filoli for three years and has been a mentor in the nature education training class for the past two years.

What is community worth to you?
Support local journalism.


41 people like this
Posted by Disappointed Volunteer
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Mar 13, 2015 at 2:11 pm

When a treasured public institution like Filoli is beset with strife to the degree that it has been of late, it is time to trace the source. There is no mistaking that path as it leads directly to the top. The new executive director, aided and abetted by her boards, has shown a disappointing tendency to be critical of volunteers and that has introduceded in a document so egregious that it is causing public debate. She calls it an "Agreement" but it is actually an arrogant mandate. Prior to that, she had issued several general emails admonishing all volunteers for petty criticisms such as "driving too fast" or "coming to work when sick and spreading germs". When trouble arose she hid behind the skirts of a spokeswoman who was supposed to be a volunteer leader but who is instead her lapdog. Finally, she has seen fit to spend Filoli funds on damage control by hiring a professional whitewash company. This must stop. As the situation worsens, it becomes more clear that the best remedy is to replace the existing Filoli leadership with people more in line with the original philosophy and goals stated by Mrs. Roth when she donated Filoli to the National Trust. That is, attentive stewardship of the physical property and gracious hosting of appreciative guests on tours and at events. Both have been cast aside by current policy. Along with a change of leadership, a sincere apology to all volunteers for recent misjudgments would help bring them back into the fold from which they've been lately excluded. May that happen soon!

31 people like this
Posted by A former volunteer
a resident of Woodside: other
on Mar 13, 2015 at 6:10 pm

In response to questions from volunteers who had questions to discuss before the March 1 Volunteer Agreement signing deadline, word was that small meetings would be scheduled.
Guess what! Those meetings have started and are only for current volunteers who did sign the VA. Former volunteers are not invited.
I would like to hear about how those meetings are going. What is the point of a problem solving meeting that does not include those who wanted answers. Why invite those who already signed??
Is this effective leadership?

31 people like this
Posted by JoeB13
a resident of another community
on Mar 14, 2015 at 8:33 am

Funny, no tragic. I always thought a significant part of a chief executive's job was to solve problems and minimize possible new problems. The current Executive Director of Filoli has CREATED the problem and MAXIMIZED the possibility of further problems for Filoli. In addition, wasting the financial assets of Filoli to hire a PR company to whitewash her poor management decisions is further evidence that she should be replaced with a more competent director.

25 people like this
Posted by pattycakey
a resident of another community
on Mar 14, 2015 at 9:41 am

I will tell you how one meeting went last week...NOT GOOD. Having received an invitation to attend the meeting with the "leadership", my husband, a Native Plants Native Ways and Nature docent, responded that he would be there at the meeting. He had heard that many volunteers were left out of the meeting (not invited) and he felt he wanted to get some of his questions answered: why weren't those dedicated people invited as well as other questions. He sent back his rsvp and said that he would attend. When he arrived, he was met by Cynthia who asked his name and looked down the list and said he was not on the list. The reception he got from her was cool to say the least. She said he could sit down and wait for the meeting to start. According to my husband, there were only a select amount of chairs set up. When those filled up, she approached my husband and said he could not stay for the meeting because he was not on the list and was asked to leave. OK everyone, aside from what has already stated previously regarding the treatment and lack of respect for these hard working volunteers, isn't this beyond how one person should treat another person??? Needless to say, my husband was very upset because she would not explain anything or why he was being asked to leave. At that point, he handed her his badge and she asked what she was supposed to do with that (not apologies or anything) and you can only guess what his response was. These meetings (with hand picked volunteers who have already signed the volunteer agreement) are serving no purpose. There needs to be transparency and accountability of what is going on and how people who, love working with children and spending time imparting the knowledge to the students that they have spent months and months learning are being treated. I am sad to see this happen to my husband and his fellow volunteers....THEY DESERVE BETTER THAN THAT! Shame on you!

9 people like this
Posted by Former volunteer
a resident of Woodside: other
on Mar 14, 2015 at 10:00 am

I am having thoughts of lots of things your husband might have said to Cynthia.
So a roomfull of volunteers saw Cyntia's rude behavior. Did no one challenge her?
Thank you for sharing.
What can be done? It is time for a definite reaction.
Volunteers care and do not want to abandon.

7 people like this
Posted by pogo
a resident of Woodside: other
on Mar 14, 2015 at 10:04 am

pogo is a registered user.

If you volunteer for an organization and are treated so poorly, why not just walk away?

I know that I would never accept the kind of rude and disrespectful behavior that is being described here.

If enough volunteers express their dissatisfaction "with their feet," the governing board will get the message. Until that happens, they won't.

35 people like this
Posted by volunteer
a resident of another community
on Mar 14, 2015 at 10:15 am

Toni Barrack and the Governing Board need to be held accountable as well. They hired this disaster of an Executive Director AND they refuse to acknowledge they made a huge mistake. Without recognition of the problem there can be no correction to the problem.

27 people like this
Posted by Judy
a resident of another community
on Mar 14, 2015 at 11:23 am

I have to agree with all that has been said. I am no longer emeritus , as I refused to sign. Having been involved in many aspects at Filoli, I, too, was told I could not be emeritus for the above reason. I feel that C. Agosta and the entire governing board should be replaced with people who know how to treat volunteers, lissten, and act accordingly.

29 people like this
Posted by Former Nature Ed Volunteer
a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Mar 14, 2015 at 11:44 am

There is widespread discontent among the volunteers, including many of those who signed the Volunteer Agreement. Morale is suffering, and a number of volunteers who signed are just waiting to see how things go and are hoping for big changes in management. If the situation is not resolved, I would expect to see a further decrease in the number of volunteers as we approach summer.

Why won't D'Agosta/Kamer talk with Barbara Wood at The Almanac? Why won't they respond to the questions she's asking? (These are the same questions the volunteers have been asking, also with no response from D'Agosta/Kamer.) If Filoli management believes what they've done is right, why won't they talk?

With every day that passes, Kamer's services are taking a bigger and bigger chunk of Filoli's budget -- money which was raised with the help of Filoli's large, loyal, hardworking, reliable, free volunteer labor force.

If someone had made up this story a year ago, I would have said -- that's impossible, it couldn't happen. But it is happening. What are we going to do about it? Will we stand by and watch the Filoli we love be destroyed?

2 people like this
Posted by lessons learned
a resident of Menlo Park: Felton Gables
on Mar 14, 2015 at 11:56 am

lessons learned is a registered user.

Filoli is a real management problem. You've got volunteers who've been there for decades who think they should run the place. That doesn't excuse mistreating them, but I wouldn't be surprised if the board hired this ED to get the volunteers in line and move Filoli out of the clique era. You can fault the ED's execution, but understandable why she was asked to take charge and implement sweeping changes.

18 people like this
Posted by Rose of Sharon
a resident of another community
on Mar 14, 2015 at 12:30 pm

Thank you, Almanac, for giving Filoli volunteers a voice and for your determined pursuit of a response to questions still unanswered. The volunteer exodus continues whether Filoli wants to admit it or not. It will continue for months to come; some volunteers are only still there now because of their strong commitment to the public programs they created and have staffed over the years.

Some feel horribly betrayed by the representatives of Filoli's volunteer organization. Others are still on the fence, waiting and hoping for some real communication and some real solutions. Sadly, they may never get those.

Early on in this process management began poisoning the well. They established a narrative where certain volunteers and volunteer groups-the ones with questions and contrary opinions-were accused of "threatening" the staff and their continued employment. No doubt someone was threatening the staff but it certainly wasn't the volunteers. In the midst of the turmoil an atmosphere of fear and suspicion was introduced and continues to be nurtured. Divide and conquer-it's an old tactic but an effective one.

So, we know these folks are good at destroying things but what are their plans for the future? So far all we've heard is a lot of corporate double-speak about 21st century businesses and industry standards. I doubt very much that Ms. D'Agosta's management style of bullying and personal vendettas will be leading anyone into some glorious future of success and efficiency. It's more like we've all fallen down the rabbit hole with the Red Queen screaming "Off with his head!" But Alice got to wake up from her bad dream...will we?

31 people like this
Posted by Volunteer
a resident of Woodside: other
on Mar 14, 2015 at 12:41 pm

As I read this column, I agree with everything that was said! Although I signed the agreement, it is not because I agree with the direction of the governing board and executive director. It is because I love Filoli and my many happy years of doing volunteer work there. However, I am questioning my decision to sign ( even though I crossed out the third part), and I believe I represent MANY who feel the same way. Hiring a crisis management firm to quell the many disillusioned and unhappy volunteers by Cynthia d'Agosta, ED, speaks volumes about the turmoil that still exists. Although the board and Cynthia try to act as if all is well, their continued ineffective, ungracious, and arrogant "leadership" may leave them surprised as more and more volunteers decide to leave their beloved Filoli. Country Almanac's featured article "Trouble in Paradise" a few weeks ago continues to be true today, even after the March 1st signing requirement.

8 people like this
Posted by Former Nature Ed Volunteer
a resident of Portola Valley: other
on Mar 14, 2015 at 12:44 pm

In response to Lessons Learned/Filoli's Management Problem, if this theory is correct, I fear that Filoli management has "thrown the baby out with the bath water".

Of necessity, when there are 60 paid employees and 1300 active volunteers who report to these 60 employees, some of these volunteers are going chair various committees. If Filoli wanted to change this paradigm, there were better ways to do it -- without discarding volunteers like me. People like me who never chaired a committee, people like me who had no power at Filoli, people like me who showed up with a smile, in good faith, ready to contribute and carry out the mission of Filoli.

20 people like this
Posted by Volunteer. (Till Mar 1 )
a resident of another community
on Mar 14, 2015 at 4:18 pm

Managing a place like Filoli requires a unique skill set. Cynthia clearly has demonstrated she does not have those skills. The divisive environment not only affects many of the volunteers but reportedly many of the employees as well. The success of Fiiloli depends on the camaraderie and good will of their volunteers who collaborate with the employees. Surely it's time for "the adults in the room" to stand up.

14 people like this
Posted by Disillusioned
a resident of another community
on Mar 14, 2015 at 6:45 pm

Amongst all these comments, only that from Felton Gables a resident of Menlo Park, expresses any sympathy with Ms. D'Agosto,whom he feels may have been hired to move Filoli out of the "clique era" and bring under control a lot of volunteers who think they can run the place. With only 60 paid employees those 1300 volunteers do indeed do most of the work of running Filoli and it is their dedication which has created the marvelous place it is. Until recently a spirit of co-operation and courtesy, together with increasingly good communication, made this partnership very successful. Since the appallingly badly handled introduction of the deeply flawed volunteer agreement, I have, during my last weeks as a volunteer, seen more examples of rudeness, snapped rejoinders, angry, not smiling faces and frustration evinced than in all the preceding years I have worked there. Certainly the spirit of Filoli has been destroyed. Let us hope that, having driven away so many devoted supporters with their accumulated years of knowledge and experience, Ms.D'Agosto and her staff will have the necessary skills themselves. I wonder how well they will do with trail maintenance and bridge building of example, having driven away, without a word of thanks, the entire Red Bandana Brigade with their unique knowledge of the way things work outside the garden?

16 people like this
Posted by Mrs. Roth's Vision
a resident of another community
on Mar 15, 2015 at 12:25 pm

Reasonable leadership who care deeply for the history of place, the tradition of a staff/volunteer partnership, and the desire of the donor, Mrs. Roth, for the environment she wanted perpetuated at her beloved home, is what is sorely lacking at Filoli and is what makes the current actions and reactions of the administration so incredibly offensive.

In the transcript compiled from a 1980-81 oral history interview with Mrs. Roth, it was made abundantly clear that Mrs. Roth had a vision. In that interview she stated: "I worry a bit about the house. You see, I think of the house as I've lived in it and then when the house is empty you get kind of confused really when you start to put things in again. If the things aren't the things that you've lived with I don't want it to become completely a museum. It could be with the museum things, but a livable museum. I think of it as a home, not a museum......" (page 145)

And yet the direction in which Filoli has been headed over the last two Executive Directors is to do just that, to turn Filoli into a "museum." This is in total contradiction to the desires of Mrs. Roth.

On the same page (145) Suzanne Riess, the interviewer, asked Mrs Roth in 1980: "But you are pleased with how it is open and how it is being handled now." To which Mrs. Roth replied: "Oh, perfectly happy. I think every day I come I'm lucky to know that it has turned out so well. As I said, in the beginning it was very difficult. To get started, you can move in and ruin everything easily."

Oh Mrs. Roth, you would not be happy now nor would you feel lucky if you came to visit. The partnership between staff and volunteers has been shattered and your home has been turned into a museum. To get Filoli started in "the 21st Century" a group of callous and heavy handed administrators have moved in and are ruining everything!

Web Link

24 people like this
Posted by volunteer
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Mar 15, 2015 at 2:30 pm

Before this turmoil began, volunteers showed up in droves, happily performing their duties. What was the secret sauce? Camaraderie and love for Filoli's history and natural beauty, a connection to the people and the property,a sense of community and belonging. Volunteers were nourished by the intellectual and moral quality of volunteers who became cherished friends through mutual giving of time, and careful tending to Filoli and adherence to Filoli's important mission. It was gratifying enough to receive the appreciation that guests expressed during their stay and to spend time with our Filoli family for just a few hours out of our busy lives. Who needed more? The ingredients were perfect; volunteers kept coming back for more. In fact, they continued for decades.What's different? We are no longer a family.
This is NOT family: Having family get togethers where some family members are invited and others are not. There is such descension and hurt feelings over lack of response to volunteers questions, no sense of caring (apologize if you have hurt someone's feelings.That shows you care. It doesn't mean that your are agreeing. It just means you value them.) National Trust, please ponder why an apology is what so many of the volunteers are needing.

25 people like this
Posted by Former NE volunteer
a resident of Woodside: other
on Mar 15, 2015 at 6:48 pm

The wonders of the Filoli Estate include the House and Formal Garde, the amazing orchard, and the more than 600 acres of protected wilderness.

Recently we got to hear from scientists from USGS who were thrilled their study of the undisturbed portion of the San Andreas Fault Line that runs through the property.

Historically there was an Ohlone village site on what is now called Filoli. Filoli was part of a large Rancho property at a time when California was ruled by Mexico. As the city of San Francisco needed more and more water for its huge increase in population following the discovery of gold , watershed property was very important.

Mr. Bourn was the owner of the Spring Valley Water Company and had a chance to study the property. He was able to pick the site for his home. It is fascinating to learn Mr. Bourn's knowledge of his property. Soil types, elevation changes, natural water on the property all were factors that helped him plan his country estate.
When the Roth family moved onto the estate in 1937, a new loving family took charge of caring for Filoli.

Until recently I had the joy of leading school age visitors on two hour hikes where we learned about the plants and animals in the ecosystems beyond the Houseand the formal garden. I also got to lead visitors who came to learn about how the Bourns and the Roths used the property beyond the House and the formal garden.

Learning about this wonderful estate has been such a wonderful discovery. I will no longer be able to set foot on the Filoli property as a volunteer. As of March 1, I can not be a Filoli volunteer. An unreasonable Volunteer Agreement and leadership that will not communicate is the problem.

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

All your news. All in one place. Every day.

After experiencing harassment, owner of Zareen's restaurants speaks out about Islamophobia, racism
By Elena Kadvany | 28 comments | 8,113 views

Good News: The New Menlo Park Rail Subcommittee Hits A Home Run
By Dana Hendrickson | 12 comments | 1,720 views

Premarital and Couples: Tips for Hearing (Listening) and Being Known
By Chandrama Anderson | 0 comments | 1,338 views

Two degrees can do all that?
By Sherry Listgarten | 2 comments | 854 views

Tame, Maim and Claim the Wild Sea Vegetable
By Laura Stec | 1 comment | 440 views


Register today!

On Friday, October 11, join us at the Palo Alto Baylands for a 5K walk, 5K run, 10K run or half marathon! All proceeds benefit local nonprofits serving children and families.

Learn More