Filoli head Cynthia D'Agosta is no longer with organization

Abrubt departure of executive director announced Wednesday afternoon

Apparently things are still not right in paradise. Volunteers at Woodside's historic Filoli estate learned on Wednesday afternoon that Cynthia D'Agosta, Filoli's executive director through a recent upheaval in volunteer ranks that saw hundreds leave their unpaid jobs at the historic estate rather than sign a controversial volunteer agreement, is no longer working for Filoli.

Only a few days earlier those same volunteers had been informed of a change to their volunteer handbook, prohibiting them from speaking to the media about Filoli or sharing information that came from Filoli. That did not stop volunteers from forwarding on the email that had informed them of D'Agosta's departure within an hour of the announcement.

The email from the executive committee of Filoli's governing board does not explain the departure, or say if it was voluntary, but simply states: "Cynthia D'Agosta is no longer with Filoli."

The email says that Carolyn Daley, who heads the governing board's finance committee "will oversee Cynthia's direct reports" until an interim executive director is named.

The email says Filoli plans to "immediately retain" an interim executive director from a professional agency, and then search for a permanent replacement.

"During this transition period the Governing Board Executive Committee will provide continuing oversight of all Filoli operations and ongoing projects," the email says.

Filoli closed to the public on Oct. 24 for its regular winter break, but will, in a little over two weeks, begin its annual Holiday Traditions program, which is a major fundraiser for the organization.

The email says the board is "confident that this change will not impact the continuing operations of Filoli or Holiday Traditions." It says the event is "fully organized, staffed and in the final stages of preparation with a confident momentum of its own."

Holiday Traditions runs Nov. 27 to Dec. 5.

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.

By late March, Ms. D'Agosta said 1,060 of Filoli's 1,300 active volunteers had signed the mandatory agreement. At that time she said 80 of those who had left were part of a group that leads students on nature walks at Filoli. A volunteer said the nature docents who had left had more than 250 collective years of experience as Filoli volunteers.

Filoli has not had good luck retaining executive directors in the recent past. In an interview in March, Ms. D'Agosta said there had been five executive directors in 10 years. "That amount of change is hard on the staff; it's been hard on the volunteers," she said then.

Ms. D'Agosta began working for Filoli on Dec. 1, 2012. She formerly served as the executive director of the Committee for Green Foothills, and was the first executive director of the San Francisquito Creek Joint Powers Authority.

A Bay Area native, Ms. D'Agosta grew up in San Jose. She holds a master's degree in landscape architecture from Harvard's Graduate School of Design and a bachelor's degree in science and fine arts from the University of California, Santa Cruz.

According to Filoli's tax forms, which must be publicly filed because the organization is tax-exempt, in 2013, the last year for which the tax forms are available, Filoli had $5.7 million in income, including gifts, grants, gift shop sales, contributions, membership fees and admissions.

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 for 2011 and 2012 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.

The latest Filoli policy regarding publicity states:

"Media may not be invited on the property by volunteers for any reason without the prior approval of the Executive Director. All media inquiries should be routed to the Public Relations Associate for coordination. Volunteers may not circulate or publish confidential or proprietary information that relates to Filoli. Proprietary information includes but is not limited to confidential staff and volunteer interactions, guest interactions, and Board or Executive activities.

"Communications by volunteers, as private citizens, cannot be restricted, as long as they do not publicize any official connection to Filoli."

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38 people like this
Posted by volunteer
a resident of another community
on Nov 12, 2015 at 7:32 am

Thanks again to Barbara Wood for her excellent reporting. There is just one sentence that could be more accurately phrased. The report says: "Filoli has not had good luck retaining executive directors in the recent past." The problem is not one of "retention" as the recent Executive Directors have been "let go." The problem is one of an inappropriate selection in the first place followed by an ill advised support of an Executive Director who is performing poorly. The job of selecting and supporting falls on the shoulders of the Governing Board.

It is sincerely hoped that the Governing Board who has not selected wisely the last three rounds does a better job next time.

28 people like this
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Atherton: other
on Nov 12, 2015 at 8:40 am

Now let's get back the experienced staff who left because of this debacle!

22 people like this
Posted by Volunteer
a resident of another community
on Nov 12, 2015 at 9:06 am

Thank you Barbara Wood for being on top of things and reporting on this matter. For those who care about the future of Filoli, it is certainly a positive change to no longer have Ms. D’Agusta at the helm. She was clearly not capable of continuing the harmony among volunteers, staff, and leadership that had been in place for so many years before her term.

Rumors of impending dismissal and the Governing Board beginning a search for a new director have been around for several weeks. Ms. D’Agusta’s sudden departure just two weeks before the beginning of Filoli’s largest fund raising event of the year and during Filoli’s first year of centennial celebration suggests substantial discord between she and the Board.

If she was fired as the available information seems to suggest, the question that must be asked is, “What took so long?” Filoli’s current leadership, the Executive Committee of the Governing Board lead by Toni Barrack and Heidi Brown, is just as culpable for the process and outcome of the Volunteer Agreement rollout as Ms. D’Agusta. Yes, Ms. D”Agusta conducted the rollout in a highly disrespectful, self-serving, and unprofessional manner. However, even after being notified by so many of the problems, leadership did nothing, but allow the scratching out of one of the most egregious clauses in the Volunteer Agreement.

It would seem that with Ms. D’AGusta’s departure there is a real opportunity for Filoli leadership to come clean, admit they made some major mistakes, and openly meaningfully apologize to those they hurt. Such actions would go a long way toward moving Filoli out of this mess and would constitute, “walking the talk.” The code of ethics developed and approved by this leadership for Filoli calls for just such actions.

Editor's note: Please don't use the same name -- "Volunteer" -- that an earlier poster on this thread used.

34 people like this
Posted by volunteer - II
a resident of another community
on Nov 12, 2015 at 9:19 am

This is not a surprise to anyone; it was an expensive 'mistake' to hire (again) someone who was not a good 'fit', who systematically reduced a superior level of performance and service through sheer ignorance and incompetence. And she was vetted by the same people who brought in the previous 'poor-fit' Directors. All of those people who 'vetted' and supported Cynthia -- and WERE AWARE of her deficiencies -- and how she alienated pretty much everyone (staff and volunteers) should remove themselves posthaste. The dedicated and talented staff deserve better, Filoli volunteers (past and present) deserve better, the legacy of Filoli, the Roth family and the Bourn family -- all deserve better!

34 people like this
Posted by whatever
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Nov 12, 2015 at 10:50 am

Perhaps the Governing Board needs a cleansing and restructuring. Five executive directors in ten years implies the board is not fulfilling it duties effectively or properly. Is being on the governing board considered to be more of a social and status position? If that is the case then a new board is needed.

21 people like this
Posted by Volunteer 111
a resident of another community
on Nov 12, 2015 at 11:18 am

As a long standing volunteer at Filoli I was very saddened by the events of 2014 and hopeful that this action is just the first step in trying to reunite the "family" that Filoli was.
One matter that has not been mentioned is the role of the National Trust (the owners of the property) in the recent events. I often wonder if the missteps were not all local, but were indeed instigated by The Trust?

20 people like this
Posted by Fritzi
a resident of another community
on Nov 12, 2015 at 11:24 am

How tragic that such an historic and remarkable property, with a dedicated volunteer base, cannot secure the caliber of executive leadership it deserves.
Filoli is magnificent and I hope its next director will be one who will honor and inspire the staff.

27 people like this
Posted by Former Volunteer
a resident of Atherton: West of Alameda
on Nov 12, 2015 at 1:31 pm

I am delighted to see that Ms. D'Agosta has left Filoli. Her tenure was painful for volunteers and staff. Excellent staff left and many long-time volunteers could not stay on when confronted by her poor communication and inappropriate goals.

As a 23 year volunteer who resigned from my Filoli positions,I am relieved to find that I can once again enjoy the special beauties of Filoli and the many extraordinary people who make it the delightful place it is. Now I can renew my membership and financial support. It's time to celebrate the collaboration of staff and volunteers once again.

23 people like this
Posted by MySanctuary
a resident of Woodside: other
on Nov 13, 2015 at 7:59 pm

MySanctuary is a registered user.

I love Filoli. To clarify, I love the gardens, mansion, wildlife, and the acres of property that serve as a blissful oasis for many of us in the hectic, overpopulated Bay Area. What I don’t love – and what is so contrary to the positive physical environment – is the nasty dysfunction among many of the humans who directly infect Filoli with negativity. My relationship with Filoli has changed over the years. I’ve always been a member and donor, but have also served my time as an employee and volunteer. Excited to report for duty in paradise each day, my heart would sink pretty quickly due to petty gossip and discontent spewed loudly and indiscriminately among my colleagues. How, I’ve repeatedly asked myself, can a diseased organism develop and grow within such a beautiful sacred space? The discord has been a long-term issue; Ms. D’Agosta is not to blame. Conflict and disrespect have become commonplace – staff, volunteers, board members. When board members engage in dissension with staff and volunteers, they’re sending the message that it’s acceptable. They’re modeling the behavior and inviting others to follow. Five executive directors within ten years = open season on five targets. Someone previously commented that “rumors of impending dismissal and the Governing Board beginning a search for a new director have been around for several weeks.” Shame on any board members who shared that information and any dissatisfaction with Ms. D’Agosta’s performance. Who leaked the organization’s email to Barbara Wood within an hour of distribution? Who have I overheard, over many years, whispering at events or in Visitor Services, the café, gift shop, or mansion? Employees, volunteers, and board members. Long before Ms. D’Agosta set foot on the precious property, many of those invested in Filoli have gossiped aggressively about executive directors. Why? I’ve thought about that for a long time. Like no other company for which I’ve ever worked, Filoli relies on people who are resistant to change. Yet another new director arrives and wants to improve operations, but the roadblocks come up, the bickering resumes, and clashes erupt. Filoli was built in 1915, and it appears very few want to adopt policies or practices from the current century. Filoli isn’t a business, so much as a social club of, primarily, seniors from wealthy area neighborhoods – most who believe Filoli is theirs. They resent efforts of directors and a handful of employees who see the advantages of changes to modernize, streamline, organize, and hold people accountable. Instead of supporting and embracing the new, so many at Filoli cling to the old, and the director becomes the bad guy, instead of the motivated leader with good intentions. With the current board and volunteer corps, I don’t think any director has a shot at success, unless he/she refrains from voicing any goals or suggesting any changes. Filoli will remain stagnant, nothing new will be expected of employees or volunteers, and visitor counts will drop – as the aging membership isn’t being replenished by the next generation at a rate capable of sustaining Filoli through volunteerism and donations. Filoli needs a transfusion of new blood, new life, new ideas. It needs restructuring. Not only does it have one ineffective board, it has two. Thirty-one on the Governing Board (excessive!) and I don’t know how many on the Friends Board. The boards each have their own priorities, and when you throw the employees and volunteers into the mix, a director has way too many resistant people to convince and please. Everything takes forever to be approved or implemented. No one seems to be entirely clear on the division of power. Board members involve themselves in human resource issues without the knowledge or inclusion of the director. Add in the crippling effect of the direct disrespect and indirect grumbling, and you’ve got an impossible job. Five candidates were deemed acceptable to hire and then blamed for what resulted from circumstances often beyond their control. It’s a no-win situation. The obsolete boards need to be replaced, or at least refreshed with new members who have current business experience, a 2015 perspective, a penchant for collaboration, and utter respect for confidentiality. The organizational structure needs to be re-defined. All board members and department managers and the director need to set an example of a professional, respectful, supportive, forward-thinking team, and gossip and negativity can no longer be modeled or tolerated. Hold everyone accountable for their words and actions. Embrace innovation and reward initiative. Attract new members and volunteers of all ages, ethnicities, and socio-economic status. Lower admission prices so more guests can appreciate nature and marvel at the magic of Holiday Traditions. Step into the 21st century. Otherwise, Filoli is going to fade away. The Bourns and Roths created a very special place that is generously shared with us. Halt the pettiness, the blaming, the bad behavior, and instead “FIght for a just cause, LOve your fellow man/woman, and LIve a good life.” Filoli was intended to be a welcoming sanctuary, not a battlefield. Quit whining, and be the kind do-gooders you think you are. Be the good stewards we’re expected to be.

10 people like this
Posted by Pocahontas
a resident of another community
on Nov 15, 2015 at 4:06 pm

Pocahontas is a registered user.

I would like to urge anyone who has all ready made comments about Cynthia D'Agosta to read the above comments from 'My Sanctuary' and then realize that Cynthia is hardly to blame for all that has happened in her short tenure. This is a well written and thoughtful piece describing the vast dysfunctions going on. Cynthia did not have a chance to succeed as she was often met with resistence at every corner. While a beautiful spot to view and enjoy, there is much discord underneath the surface and it affects all who are involved. A sorry state. Best wishes to whoever takes on this position and whatever they do, don't try to change a thing cause look what has happened to the last ED's. Good luck.

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