With its Georgian-style mansion and formal garden tucked into the hills of Woodside, Filoli runs on an army of volunteers: more than 1,300 of them lead school tours, arrange flower displays and otherwise support the work of the nonprofit that manages the place, along with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Last year, 120,000 people visited the country estate.
When management rolled out a new mandatory volunteer agreement late last year, a number of volunteers balked. But after three months of e-mails, meetings and press coverage, Filoli says the vast majority of volunteers -- more than 1,000 -- have chosen to stay on with the park.
Executive Director Cynthia D'Agosta explains the intent of the agreement. “We are trying to move Filoli out of a 40-year-old business plan and into today’s world, which is multifaceted and very litigious. We’re just trying to get ourselves into this century.”
The new guidelines require volunteers to donate their services, perform duties as assigned, allow Filoli to use photos for promotional purposes and pay for medical costs incurred by accident, illness or injury associated with volunteering. Opinions vary about the various stipulations, but far and away, the most controversial one with volunteers is this:
Release and indemnification: I agree that I, my successors, assignees, heirs, guardians, and legal representatives will not make a claim of any negligence, personal injury, wrongful death or property damage against Filoli and its employees, officers and agents for claims and liability which was incurred as a part of my participation in volunteer activities, including my travel to and from Filoli.
D'Agosta says the governing board of Filoli and the board of Filoli's volunteer group, Friends of Filoli, began to draft a new set of volunteer guidelines, one that would require a signature, after an unspecified event in 2011. She says they “wanted a better way to deal with getting volunteers to follow guidelines and to dismiss them when necessary.”
The agreement did not go over well with a number of volunteers, many of them long-timers at Filoli, which was built in the early 20th century.
“I myself have been a house flower arranger for over 22 years,” says Kiwi DeVoy, of Atherton. “That dedication and love you can’t pay for. They say three years ago there was a small problem. They’re using a hammer to kill a gnat. You don’t just throw down a piece of paper before 1,300 volunteers and say ‘Sign it.’ ” DeVoy says several volunteers took the agreement to their attorneys, who advised against signing it.
D'Agosta says the document was modeled on those used by other nonprofits. But as a growing number of volunteers expressed concern about that particular clause, and stories about the conflict began emerging in The Almanac, Filoli allowed those who wished to strike out that passage to do so, as long as they signed the rest of the document by March 1.
DeVoy chose to go that route. She says, “It’s very hard to walk away, when you have invested so much time and effort and love [in] something as special and unique as Filoli. It’s not just another local park.”
D’Agosta says management is still tabulating the agreements, and can't say yet what percentage of the signers struck out the indemnification paragraph.
“We’re not using that clause any longer, so talking about it is kind of a moot point, but that clause was meant to keep us from having frivolous lawsuits. If a volunteer were injured here within their scope of work, and using the guidelines, we are not going to abandon them. I mean, these people have worked for many, many years for us, and this is a family here.” D’Agosta adds Filoli has “generous” liability insurance to cover staff and volunteers.
You may be adding 1,050 and 100 together and coming up 150 volunteers hundred short of 1,300. D’Agosta isn’t counting those considered inactive: traveling, on leaves of absence or emeritus. Add in those, she notes, and “at any one time, we have 100-200 volunteers who are inactive.”
Some of the people who didn’t sign are emeritus, which is to say they’re no longer active, but stay on the books and the invitation list for park and volunteer events.
Judy Harris of Redwood City volunteered for more than 36 years. She opted for emeritus status last August, but “I have been informed that I am no longer emeritus status because I refused to sign [the agreement].” Over the years, she has been a docent, a docent trainer, a tea service manager and a flower arranger. “It’s probably one of the most beautiful gardens in the United States,” Harris says.
She's not a fan of this administration, but then she hasn't felt enthusiastic about the last three directors. Is there any way for management to win Harris back? “That would take a world turned over.”
D’Agosta acknowledges a “couple things went awry with the rollout” of the agreement. She says committee chairs got the agreement in November and were asked to wait a month to tell rank-and-file volunteers, after management sent out a package full of supporting information. “One person didn’t wait, and sent it out early, and that set it off on the wrong foot.”
D’Agosta adds: “There’s a misunderstanding among some volunteers about their authority here. That was what they called into question in my mind, was their authority.”
Filoli has also gone on the offense to recast the way the conflict has been perceived beyond the estate. Management hired an outside public relations firm, the Kamer Consulting Group of Oakland. They issued a press release taking issue with press coverage.
"In recent days there have been a number of inaccurate or incomplete media reports concerning Filoli and our volunteers. These reports suggested a level of division within the organization that is exaggerated.”
The recent local press coverage has certainly stood in stark contrast to the kind of glowing story that the size and dedication of Filoli's volunteer force usually generates, like this one from Stanford's journalism school.
Over the next couple of months, D’Agosta says Filoli will hold “different gatherings to clear the air.” Representatives from the National Trust will come out in mid-March to answer questions. D’Agosta says she’s been in “constant” contact with the Trust, “and they are very supportive of us.”
She adds there will be a new agreement eventually. “I wouldn’t say near future. I think it’ll be awhile. I think we’re going to let it rest now for awhile, and you can know that the next time it comes up, there will be broader community discussions about it before it happens.”