Editorial: New leadership needed at Filoli


Unanswered questions about controversial decisions affecting some 1,500 volunteers at the historic Filoli estate continue to keep the ground fertile for anger, confusion and pain among those volunteers -- both those who remain and the hundreds who unhappily severed ties with the nonprofit earlier this month. And sadly, the leaders of the cherished Woodside institution are in hiding. They seem to not understand that in a situation such as this, silence is not golden. It is destructive.

From the time in mid-February that the Almanac began looking into the turmoil prompted by the introduction of an ill-advised, first-ever volunteer agreement, executive director Cynthia D'Agosta has refused to talk to us. According to numerous volunteers who tried to get explanations about why the agreement was imposed and about some of the poorly written provisions, Ms. D'Agosta and other Filoli leaders were unwilling to answer their questions as well.

The agreement contained several provisions that hundreds of volunteers found objectionable; some consulted with their attorneys, who advised them not to sign.

When it became clear that the situation was turning into a very public volunteer revolt, the Filoli governing board met to discuss the matter; afterward, board president Toni Barrack emailed volunteers, informing them that they could opt out of the most objectionable clause, but that the board "fully supports" Ms. D'Agosta.

Although some volunteers who had earlier balked at signing the agreement scratched out the clause and signed at that point, many noted in dismay the stony tone of the message, and the lack of a convincing conciliatory message. Also, governing board member Heidi Brown spoke with the Almanac for a Feb. 25 article, but many questions were left unanswered, and Ms. D'Agosta continued to ignore requests for comment.

Finally, on March 2 -- the day after the mass exodus of volunteers who refused to sign the agreement -- a public statement was issued. But the statement came from the offices of Kamer Consulting Group, an Oakland-based public relations firm specializing in crisis management.

The statement quoted Ms. D'Agosta, who claimed that "inaccurate or incomplete media reports" portrayed an "exaggerated" level of division within the Filoli community. She stated that Filoli "has experienced no significant loss of volunteers," and promised to put in place "an outreach campaign to our members and media organizations to clear up any confusion" early media reports allegedly caused.

Despite this commitment to an "outreach campaign," as of March 16, the Almanac remains stunned by the silence. But we have questions. For example, if there had indeed been inaccurate reporting, what were the inaccuracies? And how can the press be faulted for "incomplete media reports" when the Filoli leaders refuse to talk?

Volunteers have expressed their dismay over the spending of funds on a public relations firm to help Filoli out of a crisis of its own leaders' making, and we share that dismay. We have questions about this as well: How much has been spent on this public relations effort? And more importantly, has the consultant advised leaders to continue their strategy of silence?

We support the call by many volunteers for new leadership at Filoli. Too much damage has been done by the lack of respect for volunteers, and the refusal to communicate with them and the community at large.

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47 people like this
Posted by 15 year volunteer
a resident of another community
on Mar 17, 2015 at 8:37 pm

Your editorial hit the nail on the head. The proposed waiver was bad enough but the lack of respect for the volunteers was overwhelming. Cynthia d'Agosta and the rest of Filoli's management should go and soon

43 people like this
Posted by Volunteer
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 17, 2015 at 9:01 pm

This is an extremely articulate and excellent synopsis of the Filoli community to date. It appears that the community outside Filoli is also puzzled by the silence and is questioning leadership that refuses to dialogue.i am a volunteer who signed on a temporary basis.

31 people like this
Posted by Agnes Brydges
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Mar 17, 2015 at 9:35 pm

I'm not surprised by the silence. People who've committed a crime, or who are in trouble of some sort are usually advised by their attorneys to keep quiet, "Say Nothing". Anything Ms. D'Agosta says can (and will) be used against her. It will be dissected, mulled over, examined and challenged. She's been told that. So - she's saying nothing. Things blow over and die down much more quickly that way.

Not saying I'm in agreement with her silence. Not one bit. Indeed I think she should resign immediately. As a former volunteer who started working at Filoli in the early years, and who was a friend of Lurline Roth, I can tell you she would indeed be most upset by the mess at Filoli right now.

30 people like this
Posted by volunteer
a resident of another community
on Mar 17, 2015 at 9:59 pm

Thank you Almanac for keeping this matter front and center. I totally agree with everything you've said and will continue to hope that the Governing Board will step forward and take action, if for no other reason than to honor the legacy of Lurline Roth and the spirit that has made Filoli the premier property of the National Trust. I also believe the National Trust needs to step in and make sure the provisions of Mrs. Roth gift of this magnificent property are sustained. I hope to return as a volunteer .... I miss it very much.

26 people like this
Posted by Former volunteer
a resident of Woodside: other
on Mar 18, 2015 at 7:04 am

Later this month, The National Trust is sending representatives to visit Filoli. If they confine their visit to meeting with the inept leadership at Filoli, it will be a wasted visit. Hopefully some members of the Almanac community can encourage Trust visitors to meet with the Almanac's Barbara Wood and others who are working to save Filoli.

10 people like this
Posted by Concerned volunteer
a resident of Woodside: other
on Mar 18, 2015 at 7:09 am

The National Trust visit To Filoli is this week.

28 people like this
Posted by non-signer
a resident of another community
on Mar 18, 2015 at 8:55 am

The National Trust has the appearance of buying into the spin provided by the crises management firm. They seem to be every bit as hoodwinked as other less responsible news media reporters. The Almanac is the only paper that has sought to, and succeeded in, getting the facts right. Granted The Almanac has not gotten input from Cynthia D'Agosta or Toni Barrack but that is not from any fault of their own. Filoli management has either stonewalled the paper or has promised transparency while not being forthcoming.

If The National Trust was desirous of getting at the truth, you would think they would reach out to volunteers who did not sign or at least to Barbara Wood of The Almanac in order to hear the full story. There appears to be no such reaching out. That is so extremely disappointing. You would think they would feel a responsibility to be thorough in their quest to uphold the wishes of Mrs. Roth. Apparently not.

34 people like this
Posted by Former Volunteer
a resident of Woodside: other
on Mar 18, 2015 at 9:01 am

As a volunteer who was dismissed for failure to sign the Volunteer Agreement, I feel that the very fact that the sorry mess at Filoli continues to fester is enough for a change of management from top down at Filoli. Many volunteers would jump at the chance of returning to our beloved Filoli if invited by new management.

23 people like this
Posted by 17 year volunteer
a resident of another community
on Mar 18, 2015 at 2:08 pm

I agree that this article hits the nail square on. I understand why management hired a public relations firm--It's because management knows no tone but a nasty one. Apparently someone there never reads their own writing and that's how this whole mess got started. It almost feels like Ms. D'Agosta is hiding behind a whole wall of staff and now PR people. Are we beneath her or does she just not know how to talk to people without it sounding mean? Haven't figured it out yet. There is some kind of disdain or contempt for the volunteers that has been spread through the newer staff hired say Ms. D. There's also been an increase in fear of liability there. Why? This, sadly, will most likely be my last year there.

22 people like this
Posted by Margot H Knight
a resident of Woodside: Kings Mountain/Skyline
on Mar 18, 2015 at 6:23 pm

So unfortunate. Volunteers are any non-profit organization's lifeblood. We have a young program for trail docents here at Djerassi Resident Artists Program (and are looking to start a trail management volunteer group). We cannot thank these good people enough! We also work WITH volunteers relating to any policies that affect them (bringing friends or other groups to hike, etc.). If you want to keep non-profit expenses down and community engagement UP, volunteers and respectful treatment of volunteers are an absolute in today's world.

7 people like this
Posted by helmerjc
a resident of Portola Valley: Ladera
on Mar 19, 2015 at 12:53 am

As others have said, we still don't know the Management side of this issue. It may be that the Volunteers are no longer in sync with operations as defined by the new Management, who are reluctant to publicly air the issue.

21 people like this
Posted by please explain
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Mar 19, 2015 at 9:55 am

It's true, we don't know management's side. Management won't talk. It's bad enough they won't talk to the community and the press, but as the above poster says, they might not want to air the issue publicly.

But if the volunteers are "out of sync" with operations, how do you explain management's refusal to talk to them about the issue? The volunteers I know haven't wanted this to be a public airing -- they've just wanted to continue their service and work any problems out with management. They've been shut out. How do you explain that?

29 people like this
Posted by Thomas
a resident of Woodside: other
on Mar 19, 2015 at 10:04 am

The continuing silence of The National Trust and the Filoli estate board do a great disservice to the community that supports them. I for one I am losing my "trust" in The National Trust and Filoli's board ability to manage the national treasure that is Filoli. I suggest that those of you who support the Filoli volunteers write The National Trust board regarding your concerns.

National Trust for Historic Preservation
The Watergate Office Building
2600 Virginia Avenue Suite 1100
Washington, DC 20037

15 people like this
Posted by Watching
a resident of Woodside: Woodside Glens
on Mar 19, 2015 at 12:43 pm

I'm beginning to wonder if the board hired her specifically to break the back of the volunteers -- to take away the degree of engagement and therefore influence/power of the volunteer group. Union breaking, in effect.

I can see how someone with an overweening ego could think that SHE MUST RULE and therefore be able to stonewall until she's won the battle (but lost a war she can't see through the trees?). It's so bizarre that she, the board, and the National Trust don't seem to have a plan for what happens next, as there won't be money to run the place without volunteer labor, and visits will drop when the quality of the experience plummets. The cash flow prospect is pretty scary.

Going back to the 21st century "concept", which could mean to privatize -- this is really irrational thinking, but do they want to bankrupt the organization and then sell the estate to some mega billionaire? Is there some angle where any of the "leaders" get a payout or bonus by getting rid of the stable volunteer workforce. What would this "disruption" enable them to do? ( I really hate that new buzzword, which seems to grant permission to act recklessly without regard for the risks or the greater impact, just focus on immediate profit for a few).

It's really hard to see what the motivation and goal are, beyond petty ego stuff. (I am assuming the board supports her 100%).

28 people like this
Posted by Filoli volunteer
a resident of Atherton: other
on Mar 19, 2015 at 2:21 pm

I don't know if I am just speaking for myself. As a volunteer, I feel life is too short to have the Filoli issues unresolved. There is a narrow window where the National Trust can turn things around and rescue the lost volunteers. It is human nature to move on emotionally and practically when a stressor is prolonged. This is the time to take an about face to regain the lost volunteer work force and not lose more, like me, who have been hoping for a resolution but find continuing in a hostile atmosphere to be unacceptable.

1 person likes this
Posted by Interested Member
a resident of another community
on Mar 20, 2015 at 7:54 am

I don't even know why i read this. An anonymous article is obviously an opinion not actual story with facts.....Almanac report on this when you have some actual information. I have read the opinions but at this point stop beating the dead horse. I give you one more chance before I stop reading article on Filoli. You did your part in letting us know about the agreement and its implications but at this point your articles have just become "gossip columns" as stated by others in previous articles.

16 people like this
Posted by Barbara Wood
Almanac staff writer
on Mar 20, 2015 at 9:52 am

Barbara Wood is a registered user.

Just to clarify - This "article" is an editorial, not a news story. It is the opinion of the Almanac's editors and written by the editors, not a reporter.

10 people like this
Posted by pogo
a resident of Woodside: other
on Mar 20, 2015 at 10:56 am

pogo is a registered user.

Unfortunately, Barbara, the public fails to distinguish between opinion and reportage.

And with increasing frequency, journalists (nationally, generally speaking) seem to blur the lines.

Kudos The Almanac for keeping this important story alive.

7 people like this
Posted by Mike Keenly
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Mar 20, 2015 at 12:36 pm

Barbara, thanks for the clarification, although it should have been obvious to anyone who spent the time to read it that this was an editorial (which I agree with) and not a news article.

11 people like this
Posted by Volunteer
a resident of Woodside: other
on Mar 20, 2015 at 8:17 pm

From all the foregoing it appears as though the Management of Filoli wants to reduce the number of volunteers and possibly do away with them in the near future. After all, they are talking about the need of bringing Filoli into the "21 century" and running it as a "business". Certainly, using consultants (Camer) to answer simple questions only shows that the Management of Filoli is incompetent. The latest insult came in the recent Filoli Newsletter which stated that the manager loved all those volunteers who "stayed with us" -- obviously the ones who left under duress are not loved.

4 people like this
Posted by Paul
a resident of another community
on Mar 22, 2015 at 7:01 am

Although I live in San Mateo, I have visited Filoli many times and am an avid gardener. Unfortunately, this incident at Filoli is not an isolated one--I have been asked to sign similarly intrusive agreements in connection with volunteer opportunities in other places, and refused. This trend of pushing aggressive legal agreements on volunteers is a threat to volunteerism and community itself that we need to "nip in the bud."

I think it's important here to look at governance, and in this case go right to the top of the tree. The national board of directors has the last say over who runs the organization, and how. The board hires the president who hires the local leadership. The Chair of the Board of Trustees for the National Trust for Historic Preservation is Marita Rivero.

Web Link

From my read, she has had a fascinating career in public broadcasting, and seems like a thoughtful, reasonable person.

I don't know how to contact her, but if someone can figure that out, perhaps a clearly written, respectfully crafted letter, signed by a few hundred former volunteers would be of great service to the National board of directors, the National Trust, and ultimately Filoli itself.

5 people like this
Posted by Non-Profit Prof
a resident of another community
on Mar 22, 2015 at 9:06 am

I understand all the complaints and as for working for a non-profit understand the importance of volunteers. These agreements are necesarry for many reasons. Frivolous lawsuits are one of them as well as safety for staff, public and other volunteers. Seems like there needed to be better communication between Filoli management and it's volunteers on this issue. I am sure no one likes an aggressive agreement but remember these are not written for enjoyment but to serve a legal purpose. If you read any legal document they are dry and often spell out worst case scenarios. Its the nature of the beast. While 99% of the time these agreements aren't needed but that 1% can be very costly and possibly detrimental to an organization. Some places run background checks, finger prints, and even have formal interviews. I am interested to see what was being required by the management that got everyone so riled up.

6 people like this
Posted by Volunteer
a resident of Portola Valley: Brookside Park
on Mar 22, 2015 at 10:08 am

AS a volunteer for 6 years, I wonder, if one of the reasons we had a date to either sign, or not be part of the volunteer team is "Older Age Volunteers" should be replaced by a younger group. I signed, minus paragraph 3 of the agreement, though my insurance company, and the attorney both suggested NOT to sign.
It is said, that the wonderful reputation Filoli enjoyed, now is no longer there. Maybe a shake up in top management would help to stabablize the feelings about Filoli . Redwood City Resident

3 people like this
Posted by pearl
a resident of another community
on Mar 22, 2015 at 12:27 pm

pearl is a registered user.

Paul - You can probably reach Marita Rivero, Chair of the Board of Trustees for the National Trust for Historic Preservation at this address, as so kindly provided above by Thomas:

National Trust for Historic Preservation
The Watergate Office Building
2600 Virginia Avenue Suite 1100
Washington, DC 20037

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

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