The volunteers did everything on the property, from building trails for nature hikes to digging weeds in the garden and checking out customers in the garden shop.
Since then, however, the number of volunteers at Filoli has steadily declined.
In early 2015, Filoli officials said they had 1,300 active volunteers. By late 2017, despite quarterly volunteer recruitment events, Filoli Executive Director Kara Newport said the number of volunteers was down to 850.
Hundreds of volunteers left in 2015 after Filoli told them they had to sign a new volunteer agreement or give up their unpaid jobs. The agreement, among other things, released Filoli from liability for injury, death or damage to volunteers or their property while working at Filoli, even if the harm resulted from Filoli's negligence.
Many other volunteers said they stayed at Filoli only after management agreed to allow the liability release clause in the volunteer agreement to be crossed out.
In late 2017, however, volunteers were told they had to sign a new volunteer agreement, essentially identical to the 2015 agreement and including the controversial liability release. In addition, volunteers — regardless of whether they had been at Filoli for 40 years — had to submit to a criminal background check.
Hundreds more volunteers left then, with many of them telling The Almanac the new agreement and the background checks were the final straw, but not the only reasons they gave up volunteer jobs they loved.
After Filoli announced the most recent changes in its volunteer expectations late last year, many disgruntled former and current volunteers contacted The Almanac and asked to share their stories. The Almanac spoke with more than 15 former volunteers for this story.
The Almanac also spoke with Filoli Executive Director Kara Newport and to volunteers she suggested who support the recent changes.
Volunteers lose governing roles
At the same time Filoli demanded that volunteers sign the new agreement and submit to background checks, the estate's organizational structure was radically changed, depriving volunteers of the considerable power and leadership they had held at Filoli for four decades.
As in a corporate takeover in which the acquired company is stripped of all its assets, the volunteers' organization, the Friends of Filoli, is now only a shell of what it once was.
A 1990 history of Filoli by one of the Friends founders, Timmy Gallagher, describes the Friends of Filoli as "a non-profit organization, which provides volunteer workers and financial support to Filoli Center. Friends of Filoli guides the work of the volunteers, including the training of docents who conduct tours, operates a Garden Shop ... and sponsors programs and workshops for the benefit of Filoli."
Until Filoli's reorganization went into effect in January, six members of the Friends of Filoli board also served on Filoli's governing board. Now the Friends group, which formerly included all volunteers and Filoli members, is merely a committee of the governing board. Only the head of the Friends' committee retained a seat on the Filoli governing board, and with her title downgraded from president to chair.
A membership in Filoli is now a membership in Filoli Center, the organization that manages Filoli, leaving only volunteers in the Friends. Volunteers now must be members of Filoli Center if they want to donate their time and talents.
Decades ago, the Friends of Filoli had even more independence. Before 1987, when its leadership was combined with that of the governing board, the Friends was a stand-alone organization raising most of the money used to run Filoli. An old organizational chart for Filoli shows the Friends of Filoli and the governing board as equal, with the executive director having no authority over the Friends.
Several longtime volunteers say the 1987 changes came because the Friends' fundraising meant the group held the estate's purse strings. Board members who wanted more say over where money was spent decided to share governing board leadership with the Friends' leaders.
Having six Friends of Filoli leaders on the governing board, however, meant that volunteers were managing the executive director.
More 2018 changes
More new rules governing volunteers went into effect this year. Filoli's website says volunteers now must contribute at least 72 hours annually, have an email address, and "be able to traverse (with an assistive device if needed) the uneven terrain of Filoli's historic property."
Kathie Shaw, a former governing board member and former president of the Friends of Filoli, said she believes the latest rules, especially those requiring use of email and the requirements about traversing uneven terrain (even for volunteers who work only in the house) "are a way of culling out anyone with an age problem."
Filoli leadership said the terrain rules are needed for safety, in case the property has to be evacuated.
Even with the vast drop-off in the number of volunteers, Ms. Newport, who became Filoli's executive director in September 2016, said Filoli still has more volunteers and fewer employees than similar properties.
"According to the American Public Gardens Association Benchmarking data, similar sized organizations have about 450 volunteers who are contributing the same number of hours as our volunteers (so more hours per volunteer)," she said in a statement sent to The Almanac. Ms. Newport is the American Public Gardens Association's treasurer.
Ms. Newport said the estate plans to add more employees. "According to the American Public Gardens Benchmarking Study we were understaffed by 20 percent," Ms. Newport said in the statement. "In the next three years we plan to incrementally add staff to cover basic operations like extended hours and extended seasons as well as functional areas like development and marketing."
She argued that much of the reduction in the number of volunteers can be attributed to "a clean-up of our database."
Volunteers tell their stories
While the number of volunteers has dropped by nearly 35 percent since 2014, the numbers really don't tell the whole story. Many volunteers, some of whom started soon after Lurline Roth donated the estate, say giving up volunteering at Filoli has been like losing a close friend, and they mourn the severing of their close ties with the grand old estate.
Some say they're angry, but many others say they're just sad and even bewildered. Others say they understand why changes were needed, but they don't like the way in which they happened. A number said they'd return to Filoli if leadership changes.
Here are a few of the volunteers' stories, including those of some who say they're mostly happy with the changes.
A volunteer for 40 years
Kathy Tharp said she became a Filoli volunteer in 1977, participating in the second training for volunteer docents. She said volunteers in the first class, which was trained at the end of 1976, were either friends or family members of Lurline Roth. Ms. Roth donated the 125 acres including the Filoli gardens and manor house to the National Trust, and 529 more acres of the original estate to Filoli Center. Today, Filoli Center manages the estate for the National Trust.
Ms. Tharp said her trainers included Ms. Roth's twin daughters, Lurline Coonan and Berenice Spalding, and local gardening legends Maureen Smith, Sally MacBride and Timmy Gallagher.
"They presented (Filoli) as a home and we were introduced to it as being our home, too," Ms. Tharp said.
In those days, before Filoli had received many of the home's original furnishings left to it in Ms. Roth's will, the house had "not one stitch of furniture," Ms. Tharp said. "We were taught to be very creative about how we talked about the house," she said. With just words, "we created an image of what Filoli was like when the families were living there," she said.
In those early days only volunteers with horticulture degrees could work in the garden, Ms. Tharp said. When things became more settled, the requirements were loosened up and Ms. Tharp worked with head gardener Lucy Tolmach "to really develop the garden volunteer program," she said.
Ms. Tharp said she personally interviewed each volunteer who wanted to work in the garden to find that person the right job and the right Filoli employee to work with. "We never, ever turned away one person who wanted to work for Filoli," she said. "It didn't matter if you were 19 or 90. There was always a job that needed to be done."
Until recently, she said, more than 50 percent of Filoli's garden volunteers had been there at least 10 years and worked once a week or more.
After finishing a shift, volunteers would gather in Filoli's cafe. "Filoli was a very special place for us," she said. Volunteers "loved it so much; they loved the camaraderie. All the fabulous friendships that were created throughout the years."
"That's why we miss it so much," she said. "That opportunity has been lost to us now."
Although Ms. Tharp was an active volunteer until last year, when she chaired the annual Farm to Table dinner, she left when the new volunteer agreement and background check requirements were put in place.
Volunteering at Filoli, she said, was no longer a positive experience for her. "It was not fun, it was a lot of hard work," she said. "It was pretty obvious it was time for me to go."
Ms. Tharp said she's now looking for another place to volunteer, maybe closer to her home in San Mateo.
Five-year volunteer not planning to leave
Mary George, who has lived in Menlo Park and now Atherton for 35 years, said she started volunteering at Filoli after years of active volunteering in her children's schools. She chairs the house and garden docents group of between 160 and 170 volunteers.
There were, she says, things that needed changing at Filoli.
The property is expensive to maintain, with many deferred maintenance projects in the more than century-old house. More cash is needed to do that, she said. "I think the fundraising model was unsustainable."
Other changes that some volunteers protested, such as changing the popular holiday programs and keeping the gardens open year-round, wer also needed, she said. "If you move an antique, more than likely it is damaged," she said of the previous practice of annually moving all the furniture out of the house to fill it with holiday merchandise and decor.
"Another thing we needed to look into is what would be attractive to families," she said. "We just need to be looking into the 21st century."
But Ms. George also feels volunteers are very important to Filoli. "There's no way Filoli could exist the way it is today if it wasn't for volunteers," she said. "I think there's really an appreciation for what we do. Some staff members appreciate the volunteers more than other staff members."
She is not completely sure about the changes to the Friends of Filoli. "I don't think it's a problem," she said. "But time will tell."
Ms. George said she admires Ms. Newport. "I think she's very brilliant. I think she understands things very quickly," she said.
"I haven't always agreed with her," she said, but "I think the direction we're moving is very positive. I think it's going to help Filoli last another 100 years."
"She has an amazing vision of what Filoli can be," Ms. George said.
"I think there's just better days ahead for Filoli. I think it has a really bright future. I think it's going to be sustainable," she said.
Former Filoli board member, Friends' president
Joan Sanders said she spent 29 years as a volunteer at Filoli, including stints on the estate's governing board and as a president of the Friends of Filoli.
The 2015 volunteer agreement is what drove Ms. Sanders away. "I felt the volunteer agreement was so ugly and punitive," she said.
Now she volunteers with other organizations, including Gamble Garden in Palo Alto, where she is the president-elect of its board.
Gamble, she notes, does not require a paid membership of volunteers.
Ms. Sanders, a longtime Atherton resident, said she used to be happy to pay to be a volunteer at Filoli, donating hundreds of hours a year.
"It was a wonderful experience with lots of different jobs to do, lots of fun to be had," she said. She especially enjoyed the "great community of volunteers" and made many lifelong friends there, she said.
Volunteers raised the money to run the estate, organized and ran special events, ran its cafe and gift shop, led tours of the home and garden, trained new volunteers, ran a nature program for students, sold tickets and memberships, and worked in the gardens and in offices, Ms. Sanders said.
"People could explore different talents," she said.
Plus, the working conditions — spending time on the grand old estate with its beautiful gardens, set at the base of the Santa Cruz mountains — couldn't be beat.
Most volunteers worked at least two three-hour shifts a month, she said, but many worked far more.
"I think I worked at least 200 hours during the year, and I think a lot of people did," she said.
During busy times, such as the now canceled Holiday Traditions event, she and others often worked 40 to 60 hours a week, she said.
Now, she said, volunteers get reassigned from the jobs they signed up for, and many of the more rewarding jobs have been taken from them. "Set up, clean up and break down" are all volunteers are wanted for, she said.
How volunteers interact with staff members has also changed, Ms. Sanders said. "If you say anything negative within hearing of staff, you will be asked not to volunteer anymore," she said.
Working with volunteers, she said, is hard for managers who need control. "People feel they can't control volunteers, because if volunteers are unhappy, they simply leave and go somewhere else."
"I think volunteers were an important part of Filoli," she said. "These are people who have been in all the top industries on the Peninsula. They're retired, and they love gardens and they love history, and we are not utilizing their expertise at all."
Ms. Sanders said that while she still loves Filoli, she has changed her will to remove a bequest for the estate. "I have taken Filoli out of my will and put another worthy organization in there."
Volunteer booted after "not fun" remark
Another 35-year volunteer said she suddenly lost her volunteer status after she remarked to a Filoli employee that volunteering at the estate was "not fun" anymore. The former volunteer, who asked not to have her name used, said soon after she made the remark the chairs of the committees she volunteered on were told she was no longer a volunteer.
"I don't know what I'm going to do with myself now," she said. "I was really putting a lot of time into Filoli." She had worked at least 100 hours a year, and up to 200, in recent years, she said.
"I thought I was going to continue doing that," she said. "They just weren't interested in having me around."
The woman said she began volunteering at Filoli while working full time. Filoli attracted her because she had grown up in a 28-room estate on the Peninsula and "I've always loved gardens," she said.
"I'm still a member," she said. "I support Filoli in theory. I'm not as mad as some people are. I'm really just sad," she said.
The former volunteer said that when she began donating her time and effort, Filoli had only five employees other than the gardening staff. Ms. Newport said in November that Filoli had the equivalent of 64 full-time employees (which can mean many more actual employees, as many workers are part-time).
Rules for volunteers are now more onerous than they are for non-volunteer Filoli members, the former volunteer said. For example, volunteers are not allowed in Filoli's main house unless they have business in the house. "That's just silly because all the volunteers are members," the woman said, and members can go in the house at any time during their visits.
According to emails sent to volunteers, if they want to visit the garden after finishing a volunteer shift in the gift shop, for example, they must move their vehicles from volunteer to guest parking, remove their volunteer name badges and check in to get a wristband from visitor services.
The former volunteer said she felt volunteers have gone from being partners to being seen as interlopers.
She said that during her first 25 years of volunteering she rarely met any of Filoli's executive directors. "They weren't really visible on the property," she said. "They didn't need to be because everything was being run just fine by the volunteers."
When Kara Newport started, however, the volunteer introduced herself and started to ask Ms. Newport a question about her background.
She said Ms. Newport interrupted her, guessed at what the question would be and abruptly answered her own guess. "That's not what I was going to ask," the former volunteer said. "I felt like I got slapped in the face," she said. "What a way to meet her."
Former board member, interim director
Bob Walker, a retired Hewlett-Packard and Agilent Technologies upper-level executive, served on Filoli's board of directors and was its interim director between the departure of executive director Jane Risser and the hiring of her replacement, Cynthia D'Agosta. He continues to volunteer at Filoli.
Mr. Walker, like many of the other volunteers interviewed, said change was needed at Filoli. What is happening there, he said, is "part of a long-term process."
"Filoli's getting more organized," he said. "For a long time, it was running on inertia and people who had been around for a long, long time."
Change, he said, is hard. Those who are driving and involved in the changes can find it invigorating and energizing, he said. But for those the change is happening to, that's not the case, he added.
"Organizations don't change easily," he said.
Mr. Walker said Filoli has had too many executive directors whose stays have been too short. "The board was very concerned that somehow this was reflecting very badly on them," he said. "That's a concern the current board has."
One problem that has frustrated the five executive directors and two interim executives Filoli has had since 2005 is "volunteers and the role they play" at Filoli, Mr. Walker said. "There was a real sense ... that the volunteers just had too much independence." An organization with lots of workers who do not have a clear chain of command is hard to run, he said.
In the early days, he said, volunteers ran Filoli. "As the organization got larger and more mature, it became a little less clear — who is in charge?" he said.
The fact that volunteers on the governing board supervised the executive director made it "very, very hard for the executive director," he said.
But replacing volunteers with paid staff means Filoli needs more money to operate, he noted. That has brought in corporate events, which "change the ambiance of the place," he said.
"For a long time, there was a sense of a feeling of family" among both Filoli employees and volunteers, he said. Now, "there is a real sense of loss."
Losing volunteers also means losing people with detailed knowledge of the operation of Filoli, he said.
If the process for making the changes had been developed more "collaboratively" and with more "empathetic listening," he said, "it would have gone more smoothly."
Four-decade vet happy with changes
Suzanne Legallet is one of the Friends of Filoli leaders who was voted off the governing board this year. The change was requested by the National Trust, she said.
"The new organization is much clearer" than the old, she said.
"Change is difficult for people. The Friends of Filoli had wonderful opportunities," she said. "I look at the change in Filoli now ... taking all of that goodness that has been produced at Filoli for 40 years and building on that."
Ms. Legallet, a longtime Atherton resident, said she volunteers as many as 600 hours a year for Filoli. Other volunteers, such as the Friends' chair, put in two or three times that much time, she said.
She started volunteering when Lurline Roth was still alive and visiting her former home. "I met Mrs. Roth several times," she said. "I actually got to serve Mrs. Roth wine."
"Filoli is different than it was 20 years ago. I understand that," she said.
Ms. Legallet is especially happy that Filoli will no longer close for three months each year. "I've wanted the garden to open year around forever," she said. "It's going to be wonderful."
She also believes volunteers will still be able to be creative and come up with projects that are adopted by Filoli's staff, Ms. Legallet said. "You're going to do it within a system," she said.
If she had an idea for a fundraiser, after talking it over with a staff member, "I wouldn't hesitate to go to Kara (Newport) and say, 'This is what I want to do,' " she said.
Because the Friends group is no longer as autonomous as it once was, "I feel like I'd have a lot more access to staff support" for a project, she said. "I consider us the worker bees."
"Kara's a very strong leader," she said. "She's extremely competent. She's the boss," she said.
Some of the changes, such as encouraging corporate rentals that will shut down parts of the house and garden at times, will also change Filoli, she said. "Some of what Filoli has represented in peace and serenity and escapism is not going to be there."
If the changes don't work, they won't last, she said. "Filoli's learning."
"Kara describes it as moving into the 21st century," she said. "Change is a challenge."
What's happening is "growing pains," she said.
Ms. Legallet encouraged new volunteers to give Filoli a try. "All of our problems are solvable, and it's a beautiful place to be," she said. "It's a learning situation, and it's a great place to make friends. It's just a good place to be."
Personally, she said, she loves Filoli because it always makes her feel like "I'm giving a party and didn't have to do any work."
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