Hundreds of Filoli volunteers may quit if forced to sign new agreement

Agreement releases Filoli from liability for volunteer claims of injury or damages

There's trouble in paradise.

At Woodside's historic Filoli estate, many of the 1,300 volunteers, who do everything from selling tickets to building the trails used for nature hikes, have expressed anger and dismay over an agreement that Filoli says they must sign by March 1 or lose their volunteer jobs.

It appears that hundreds of volunteers may chose to quit rather than sign an agreement that would release Filoli from liability for injury or other damages that volunteers may incur while doing work there.

An email from Filoli management on Feb. 13 says only 600 volunteers had signed the agreement at that point.

The part of the agreement that volunteers say is the most objectionable is a "release and indemnification" which states that the volunteers "will not make a claim of any negligence, personal injury, wrongful death or property damage against Filoli and its employees, officers and agents" for anything that happens while volunteering.

The agreement also says: "I understand that I will be responsible for medical costs incurred by accident, illness or injury associated with my services to Filoli."

Filoli management, including Executive Director Cynthia D'Agosta and Filoli's head of public relations Christina Syrett, has declined to comment on the controversy. A board meeting has been scheduled for Feb. 18, and Friends of Filoli president Heidi Brown said she "will have more information" after the meeting.

Read the rest of the story here.

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7 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 18, 2015 at 12:50 pm

Question: do volunteers in other local parks have to sign similar agreements?

To all you lawyers out there: what rights do volunteers really have? Of course, they do not have the same employment rights as full-time employees. But does this agreement infringe on any of a volunteer's existing rights or does it just make their existing rights (or lack thereof) more transparent?

6 people like this
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 18, 2015 at 1:04 pm

Another question that should be asked: "How much is the yearly premium on an insurance policy that would property cover the volunteers"?

Whoever, or whatever, the Filoli management team might be, it would seem that they owe the public this sort of information .. because .. the public is at risk when on the Filoli grounds in much the same way the volunteers are.

Oh, and just how many volunteers have been injured, to date, during their volunteering?

Might also be interesting to know just how many hours the typical volunteer puts in on the grounds.

7 people like this
Posted by Jenny
a resident of Community Center
on Feb 18, 2015 at 1:06 pm

My home owner's policy - insurance - covers a babysitter, guest, once-a-week-gardener, and 2X a month cleaner.
That's rather standard. I worked at Filoli for over fifteen years and wonder now if I had any insurance. It sure does cover guests. This is bizarre. If I were there now, I'd be out-the-door. Dumb.

Like this comment
Posted by parent
a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 18, 2015 at 1:17 pm

There's a big difference between these volunteer jobs and public visitors. As the article states, the volunteers work with machinery and power tools and also have access to areas that are off limits to the public.

Regarding contract employees like babysitters and maids and gardeners - it is fairly common for a homeowner to force these contract employees to sign a liability waiver in return for their salaries.

8 people like this
Posted by neighbor
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 18, 2015 at 3:50 pm

Meet the state of California. A sue-happy place.

10 people like this
Posted by Guest
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 18, 2015 at 5:30 pm

Who can blame Filoli? Any one of the 1300 volunteers, especially the many seniors and their families/heirs, could sink the place with a trip/fall, wrongful death, etc., etc., lawsuit.

My only surprise is that it took Filoli so long. Perhaps they had a close call.

Volunteer at your own risk is the message. It's reasonable. If one doesn't like it, just visit as a paying guest.

9 people like this
Posted by Former Filoli member
a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 18, 2015 at 6:10 pm

Guest: Membership is required to become a volunteer; volunteers do not get in for free.

24 people like this
Posted by volunteer
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Feb 18, 2015 at 6:28 pm

To Guest
Consider this: all Filoli volunteers must be Filoli members first; then they may have the privilege of becoming a volunteer. But, by signing the required volunteer agreement as it is currently written, that member-volunteer is being required to sign away the protection that is afforded to the member-guest. So, if you as a member-volunteer are serving as a docent and a member-guest is standing next to you and the ceiling falls on you both and you both sustain the same injury, the member-guest will have redress while the member-volunteer will have none. Do you find that either fair or equitable? It is taking the same group of people - all paying members- and treating them differently. That is discrimination. The volunteers are not opposed to a volunteer agreement, they are just opposed to this one.

7 people like this
Posted by Guest
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 18, 2015 at 7:27 pm

Again, who can blame Filoli. Member-guests and member-volunteers have substantially different relationships with the place.

A member-guest is just that, a guest. A member-volunteer has a different relationship with Filoli; for example: spending more time on-site and under less supervision/control than a guest; having semi-authoritative attire/title such as "docent;" guiding guests here and there in buildings and grounds; having greater access to areas; performing work; using tools to work the land or buildings, etc.

Although some may disagree, it's reasonable for Filoli to treat member-guests and member-volunteers differently based on the different relationships. It's hardly "discrimination." For greater scope of access, etc. etc. to Filoli, above, Filoli requires that a volunteer narrow the scope of Filoli's potential liability. That is, the volunteer has to take on the risk of being there and what he/she does while on site. Or, if one doesn't want to take on the risk, merely visit as a member-guest.

26 people like this
Posted by acerbic
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 18, 2015 at 8:16 pm

Sounds like Filoli just hired a new MBA.

27 people like this
Posted by Filoli
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 18, 2015 at 9:33 pm

The volunteers provide services to the organization for free. Without such a large contingent, Filoli would not be able to function. Surely their service should entitle them to some protection. If Filoli had to hire people to perform the same tasks it would not exist.

4 people like this
Posted by Guest
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 19, 2015 at 5:01 am

"Surely [Filoli volunteers'] service should entitle them to some protection."

Entitle? Noooo! Only if agreed to by Filoli, which isn't the case. Apparently, Filoli and/or it's insurers are of the opinion that 1300 liability-generating volunteers put the place at risk.

But you've identified what the issue is for the volunteers who disagree: a false sense of entitlement.

In terms of protection, a volunteer would have what they have just outside Filoli's gate, their own insurance, etc., and whatever backstop Calif. law says is outside agreements, say perhaps criminal negligence.

8 people like this
Posted by parent
a resident of Menlo Park
on Feb 19, 2015 at 9:37 am

Volunteers who sign this waiver need to really evaluate their risk. Talk with your insurance company to make sure you are covered. And think twice about taking risky jobs at Filoli, such as working with power tools or heavy machinery or around public streets and parking lots.

3 people like this
Posted by green Gables
a resident of Crescent Park
on Feb 19, 2015 at 11:06 am

No other organization for whom I volunteer or have volunteered asks volunteers to become a member. No one has ever asked me to sign a document letting them off the hook from injury (and I've not ever been injured). The presentation is everything as we learn in marketing and sales, and Filoli flunked that. Volunteers are now protected by a new California labor law bill which pretty much states the same as for full-time employees.

5 people like this
Posted by Help people instead of flowers
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 19, 2015 at 11:09 am

I love Filoli. It's beautiful. But if all those volunteers who are not comfortable signing this new contract high tailed it to volunteer organizations that desperately need tutors for children and adults trying to get an education, I'm sure the end result for society would be more valuable than a few pretty tulips and daffodils. Just sayin.

11 people like this
Posted by green Gables
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Feb 19, 2015 at 11:14 am

I'm a volunteer at FiloIi, and I tutor 2 young women from El Salvador; each have a child; one is married and the other is a single parent. I put in 25 years in working full time some as a single parent of 3, making dinner every night, and going to class at night. A few pretty tulips is much nicer. And what volunteer work and/or tutoring do you do??

2 people like this
Posted by Help people instead of flowers
a resident of Midtown
on Feb 19, 2015 at 12:12 pm

@ Green Gables.

Great! You are doing a wonderful thing. No need to get snippy. Since you asked, I've logged OVER 4,000 hours of volunteer work in the last 10 years in this community, including tutoring, classroom volunteering, church work, political action, and fundraising for non-profits (and received accolades for my contributions). And I'm proud of it. In fact, I'm heading out at this very minute to volunteer more of my valuable time helping humans so I need to get going. ; )

3 people like this
Posted by Senior citizen
a resident of College Terrace
on Feb 19, 2015 at 6:01 pm

Please consider joining another beautiful non profit organization in Palo Alto.
We are located inside the senior center in Palo Alto, and we serve hot lunches to seniors from Mondays to Fridays.
Volunteers will meet great people and other friendly volunteers and we provide free hot lunches to all volunteers.
If interested, please contact thanks.

3 people like this
Posted by MoreToThinkAbout
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 19, 2015 at 6:19 pm

Insurance premiums cost money. Insurance companies do not care if a person is an employee or volunteer. They care that one of them gets hurt/injured, then it will cost the insurance company money. The insurance company has deep pockets. So they see that there is a liability (i.e. volunteers who could be hurt/injured) and see that they are not getting any income (premiums) to cover it. They tell Filoli it will cost $XXX.XX to cover the volunteers. Now I do not know how much that is. But maybe it is a real number, one that will affect Filoli's operation. They are a non-profit after all, maybe their 'margins' are very slim. In any case the insurance company says eliminate the liability or pay the premium or get another insurance company. And any other insurance company is going to say the same thing. I have seen similar things happen at other places before. So out comes the indemnification form for the volunteers to sign.

I do not mean to sound crass (seriously) by what follows. Volunteers "get something" out of volunteering, regardless of what it is. Being at a beautiful place, outdoors, with people, assisting in the preservation of something worthwhile, etc. If volunteers did not get some feeling that makes it worth while, then they would not be volunteering. Now, in 'compensation' for getting that feeling, they are being asked to say that if there is an accident, they will not sue. They will need to take personal responsibility for their own insurance as if they were working in their own yard, taking a hike, riding a bicycle, etc. and had an accident that was not the legal fault of another. (Note, CA law does not allow such agreements to be enforced when 'gross negligence' can be shown).

No, I don't like it, but this is unfortunately the way of the world now.

3 people like this
Posted by Allen Edwards
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 19, 2015 at 9:54 pm

"Indemnification" is a big word. I would not sign an indemnification clause. Generally if you as a volunteer indemnify Filoli it means you agree to pay their legal bills for anything that is a result of your actions. The example that was explained to me is if I get into a traffic accident and someone is hurt and they hear I was headed to Filoli and they sue Filoli in addition to me, then I cover Filoli's legal bills. Remember, anyone can sue anyone for any reason and they do. I would need to take out a very expensive insurance policy to volunteer without putting myself at risk. No way. Hopefully this is a typo and Filoli is not asking the volunteers to indemnify them.

4 people like this
Posted by Fight Love Live
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 19, 2015 at 10:32 pm

The average Filioli volunteer is a 65 year old woman. They are not using power machinery and operating heavy equipment. They are not toiling long hours in unsafe conditions. They are in a beautiful environment enjoying lovely surroundings and working on things of interest to them - giving tours, arranging flowers, directing visitors.

We all sign waivers to join and be a part of many normal things in our lives - to join a sports team, to join a gym, to go on a field trip or to summer camp - and none of us feel abused nor threatened by this request. Even when we do things like purchase a car or take out a mortgage, we often sign agreements waiving our right to sue, and instead agreeing to arbitration. We all know that such legal waivers are regularly held invalid in cases of extreme negligence, so in reality we are not signing away our rights. We are just putting a small impediment in our way if we think we want to sue Filoli.

Filoli is a non-profit without a huge endowment. I am surprised it is so thinly endowed. The property itself may well be worth $100M, but they are extremely cash poor. I think they have 18 months of operating expense sin the bank. If an 80 year old man or woman trips and falls walking down a path, it is certainly possible that they might attempt to sue Filoli. Not because Filoli did anything wrong, but they feel they deserve something for their pain and suffering and think they have deep pockets. People regularly sue cities and school districts for just this reason. And insurance companies regularly settle, because they know contingency attorney's will take their cases.

I get the sense that a lot of these volunteers have nothing better to do than complain about this. They should move on - Filoli needs a younger corps of volunteers to take it into the future.

Filoli needs to protect itself from the the reality of the world in which we live - that is why they are asking this. Better to lose a few volunteers than to have to close and sell off the property because some disgruntled volunteer chooses to sue the property because they were 'injured' on the property, and they want to cash in for their heirs and assigns.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 20, 2015 at 1:38 am

> "Better to lose a few volunteers than to have to close and sell off the property"

I suppose Filoli could be closed, or even left to rot, but if it could actually be sold off, there would have already been a hostile takeover of the National Trust for Historic Preservation and subsequent monetization of all their properties.

My worry is that ABAG will figure out how to do it.

Like this comment
Posted by MoreToThinkAbout
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 20, 2015 at 11:35 am

In reply to Allen Edwards:
Alan, I may have used indemnify inappropriately. I have not actually seen the form the volunteers are being asked to sign. Thanks for bringing this up.

2 people like this
Posted by docent
a resident of Los Altos Hills
on Feb 20, 2015 at 8:06 pm

Wow, the negative "you elitist docents who don't understand business and are shallow" tone of these messages, since the original ones have been deleted on this comment listing, appear to have been written by.... you fill in the names of those who would benefit from discrediting docents....

3 people like this
Posted by Lorenzo
a resident of Greenmeadow
on Feb 21, 2015 at 2:15 pm


I smell a Rat.

Most of you should ba aware of the fact that Filoli just hiked their annual membership fees by a gigantic amount (somewhere near a 50% increase).

Now they are "saving even more money" by dropping insurance coverage for volunteers (who also have to pay these increased membership fees).

Sounds to me like Filoli management, including Executive Director Cynthia D'Agosta want to take in more money for themselves!

So where are the remuneration amounts for Filoli management publicly posted, so we can verify this?


1 person likes this
Posted by Pearl
a resident of another community
on Feb 21, 2015 at 2:46 pm

Pearl is a registered user.

Did I read somewhere here in the "Comments" that Filoli volunteers have TO PAY TO VOLUNTEER?!?! Does that mean the volunteers pay cash to Filoli for the "privilege" of volunteering at Filoli?!? Tell me that is NOT true!!!

If, indeed, Filoloi volunteers have to pay to volunteer at Filoli, could someone please tell me how that works, and how much the volunteers have to pay?

Like this comment
Posted by Neighbor
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 22, 2015 at 9:51 pm

@ Pearl

Haven't you read the story about Tom Sawyer?
Remember how he scammed his buddy's into painting the fence for free?

The same scam is being conducted today, it is called a Non Profit.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Feb 23, 2015 at 10:51 am

Tom Sawyer didn't make $200,000 a year.

Like this comment
Posted by Hmmm
a resident of East Palo Alto
on Feb 23, 2015 at 1:20 pm

Hmmm is a registered user.

Pearl, the volunteers also must be members of Filoli. It's a wonderful place, but has been rife with snobbery for a long time. I've known a lot of nice volunteers there, but I'm not sure how they manage amidst a lot of the snobs. It's supposed to have cache to be a volunteer. You know, sort of like one of those farms where you pay to go pick fruits and vegetables for others, and you get to keep a portion? Only for plenty of Filoli vols, it's prestigious to be a vol, akin to being a member of the Junior League. It's a great place for social climbers, in addition to the genuine gardening and historical sites lovers.

There is a lovely side to being a vol at Filoli, too, but clearly this agreement, even being changed for the better, isn't very lovely.

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

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