Note: This is an expanded version of an earlier story. With the permission of Ms. Brown and Ms. D'Agosta the interview was recorded.
By Barbara Wood | Almanac Staff Writer
Filoli Executive Director Cynthia D'Agosta. (Photo by Michelle Le/The Almanac.)
Ms. D'Agosta said 1,060 active volunteers had signed a controversial volunteer agreement by March 27, along with 28 inactive emeritus volunteers and 14 volunteers who are on leave. That means at least 240 of 1,300 active volunteers declined to sign the mandatory agreement and have left Filoli since the March 1 signing deadline.
Ms. D'Agosta said 80 who have left were part of a group that leads students on nature walks at Filoli, but that program has not been cut. A volunteer said the nature docents who have left account for more than 250 collective years of experience.
In the interview, Ms. D'Agosta said that while Filoli does plan at some point to revise the volunteer agreement with a new release of liability clause, it will not happen in the near future. "Given our current workload and projection of what needs to get done this year, we're not going to revisit that for a while," she said.
In mid-February, a number of Filoli volunteers contacted the Almanac to express distress over the volunteer agreement they had been told they had to sign by March 1 to keep their volunteer jobs. At that point, according to an email from Filoli management, only 600 volunteers had signed.
After the Almanac posted a story about the controversy, Filoli's governing board met and said volunteers could cross out the most objectionable clause, which states volunteers will not make "a claim of any negligence, personal injury, wrongful death or property damage against Filoli" in connection with the volunteer's work at Filoli.
Ms. D'Agosta emphasized that volunteers do myriad tasks at Filoli. A count of volunteers working during a recent week at Filoli ranged from 27 to 93 each day, depending on what was going on at the estate that day.
A recent volunteer newsletter said that in 2014, volunteers donated 103,769 hours to Filoli, the equivalent of 50 full-time employees. The newsletter valued the time of the employees (at $26.34 an hour) at $2.7 million.
That means that the volunteers who have left Filoli, if they worked the bare minimum number of annual hours required of volunteers, 30 hours a year, would be equivalent to the loss of at least $189,648. Volunteers must also be members, which costs at least $50 a year at the senior rate; meaning Filoli will lose at least another $12,000 in memberships.
In the March 26 interview, Ms. D'Agosta, said that the loss of the volunteers has been an "emotional hardship." "I'm not discounting the dollars or the hours, I'm just saying that in terms of what we're dealing with, that has been the most significant impact," she said.
Ms. D'Agosta said that work on a volunteer agreement began about four years ago, before she was hired in late 2012. The governing board asked for a volunteer agreement because "there was not an official way for the organization to remedy a situation when we had a volunteer who was ... putting others in danger," she said.
"They felt that the volunteer agreement was a way to get at that and to clarify the relationship," between volunteers and the organization, she said.
While the intent may have been to put in place a disciplinary procedure, the final agreement says nothing about such a process, Ms. D'Agosta admits. "Over time, it took a very different turn," she said.
Through changes in Filoli's governing board, volunteer leadership and administration over those four years, many different people worked on the agreement and "things lose their initial intent over time -- they lose their context," she said.
"When I came into it, what I brought to the table were examples of other agreements," she said. "They hadn't really looked at what other organizations do."
Heidi Brown, who became the president of the Friends of Filoli only in November, and Ms. D'Agosta "both were handed this document, basically, to implement," she said.
"This was a collective decision of management," Ms. D'Agosta said. "This was not something I put down when I got here and said, 'This needs to happen.'"
When asked why, after so much time without an agreement, the executive board insisted on going ahead even after it was clear that there was much opposition, Ms. D'Agosta said, "I'm not sure; I'm honestly not sure."
In recent years, many changes have taken place at Filoli, where there have been five executive directors in 10 years, Ms. D'Agosta said. "That amount of change is hard on the staff; it's been hard on the volunteers. Sometimes I feel that what we're dealing with is just that whole aspect of change," she said.
"That is one of the factors that I have to take into consideration when we have to rebound from an event like we just had with the volunteer agreement," she said. "What you're seeing is the vocal volunteers. But there are thousands of people behind them who have to be protected from what is being said and what's being thrown out there," she said.
With the help of the Peninsula Conflict Resolution Center, a San Mateo-based nonprofit, Ms. Brown, Ms. D'Agosta and governing board President Toni Barrack have been holding a series of what they call "facilitated discussions" with groups of about two dozen volunteers at a time. Seven of the two-hour sessions had been planned or held at the time of the interview, but Ms. D'Agosta said "we will continue to add (sessions) until there's no more requests."
"We're making it a place where people are free to speak their minds," she said. "People coming out of the meetings have said thank you, this has been very helpful, very useful and that they felt better."
Ms. D'Agosta said that the fact that many Filoli volunteers see the organization as a family "adds to the complexity" of dealing with the problems the organization has experienced. "Each step that we take has to be very well thought out," she said. "It's like dealing with a four-year-old who just doesn't understand why he can't touch that flower. It's at that level. It is."
Ms. D'Agosta said she had refused to comment until that day in part out of frustration "with a lot of things that were going on -- not just what was bring printed, but the challenges here that we were dealing with. And it wasn't so much about you or about what you were doing, it was about what was being said that was so frustrating," she said. "By talking to you I wasn't necessarily going to get to talk to those people," she said. "
"I didn't see at that time that it was going to benefit us in any way," to talk to the Almanac, she said. "I didn't trust where it was going to go and what was going to happen."
"We then went in and started working internally instead," she said.
Now, however, "the fog is lifting," she said. "Management has been able to come together, decide a path. We're working on it. What's included in that is re-establishment of the relationship with the Almanac."
Heidi Brown, who also participated in part of the March 26 interview, said "it was very difficult being silent. But we had to get it right."
In the March 26 interview, Ms. Brown and Ms. D'Agosta denied a number of rumors that volunteers had conveyed to the Almanac.
She denied, for example, that Filoli is suffering from financial problems and because of that has had each department cut expenses by 10 percent, canceled the garden's intern and apprentice programs and canceled training for nature docents.
Ms. D'Agosta said there have been no departmental cuts, and that the internship program didn't take place in the spring because there weren't enough candidates. Ms. Brown said the nature docent training was canceled because "we actually had so many docents that we weren't getting as many hikes (to lead) as we wanted to."
Both said Filoli treasures its nature education program and has no plans to discontinue it. "I think quite the opposite," said Ms. Brown. "Filoli's proud of that education program and that's our mission."
A review of Filoli's income tax forms, which must be publicly filed because the organization is tax-exempt, show that in 2013, the last year for which tax forms were filed, Filoli had $5.7 million in income from gifts, grants, contributions and membership fees ($1.1 million) and admissions, merchandise sold, services or facilities furnished ($4.6 million).
That year Ms. D'Agosta made $172,219, and the organization had 31 members of its governing body (who are not compensated), 82 employees and 1,442 volunteers.
The tax forms are also available for 2011 and 2012. They show that Ms. D'Agosta's predecessor as executive director, Jane Risser, made $185,000 in 2011 and that she was paid $165,000 in severance pay when she left in 2012.
In an effort to learn from other successful similar organizations, Filoli is sending two employees and Ms. Brown to Longwood Gardens in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where about 800 people volunteer, Ms. D'Agosta said. "They are a volunteer organization that works well with management, so we are going to learn from them," she said.
After the interview, Ms. D'Agosta gave the Almanac a prepared statement, sent by Larry Kamer, whose Oakland-based crisis communications management company, Kamer Consulting Group, has been working for Filoli since the dispute over the volunteer agreement went public in late February.
"As executive director of Filoli, I will be the first to admit that we could have done a better job in laying the groundwork for the introduction of the volunteer agreement last December, and for that I apologize to those volunteers who saw this as somehow demeaning their work or their contributions to Filoli," she wrote.
In the statement Ms. D'Agosta characterizes those who gave up their volunteer jobs rather than sign the new agreement as "a small but vocal group."
"But even when our board agreed to drop the provision that was the most divisive -- a liability waiver similar to those used by countless other organizations to reduce the risk of frivolous litigation -- a small but vocal group of advocates has continued to insist that the very introduction of a volunteer agreement is an insult to the volunteer corps," she writes.
She did thank those who have left Filoli for their earlier work. "We will continue to honor their service, and we thank them for their invaluable contributions to the success of Filoli," she wrote. "But historic preservation is as much about the future as it is about the past, and we can't secure that future without strong systems and policies in place. The overwhelming membership of our volunteer corps has recognized this, and we will continue to honor them and support them as we move forward. They are the future of this important historic site."
While some have called for Ms. D'Agosta's firing or resignation, she says she is staying. "I don't plan on going anyplace," she said. "We want to settle this and get back to what we love."