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Christine LenahanMarch 14, 2024
Composite image via iStock

This essay is a Cover Story selection, a weekly feature highlighting the top picks from the editors of America Media.

The Ella Baker House, in the Harlem neighborhood of New York City, can house eight volunteers—nine if two agree to be roommates. A converted rectory connected to Resurrection Catholic Church, the building serves as home to members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, the largest lay, Catholic, full-time volunteer program in the world. But on the day of my visit, the rectory aches with an eerie quiet, and several unoccupied bedrooms hold little besides mattresses on the floor. Despite the spacious rooms, only four volunteers are living here.

The rectory’s glossy blue front door shines under the street lamps. I’ve come to the house to visit my friend Jen Lozano, who has committed to a year of service work through J.V.C. after graduating from Boston College in 2023. Jen walks up the narrow oak staircase and I follow close behind as the stairs creak underfoot. Knickknacks clutter entryway tables: a small sculpture of Michael the Archangel and a small replica of St. Peter’s Square are veiled in a thin layer of dust. The living room walls are lined with crowded bookshelves. A faded USED label appears on the spine of a biography of Dorothy Day sandwiched between tattered MCAT and LSAT study guides. But the volunteers’ most sacred texts, The Cheap Bastard’s Guide to New York City and New York: Free and Dirt Cheap, are more dog-eared and highlighted than the test prep books.

This space has housed Jesuit volunteers for decades, with group photos of each cohort of volunteers since 1995 lining the staircase wall. Each group of smiling people, most of whom are adorned in funky cable-knit sweaters and Birkenstocks, likely arrived because they were attracted to J.V.C.’s core values of spirituality, simple living, community and social justice, and wanted to live out those values while serving others through their work placement. 

The photos are a testament to communities of the past, but they are also evidence of a problem faced by J.V.C.: The number of faces in each photo gets smaller and smaller each year. Despite its reputation as the pioneer of the Catholic post-graduate service industry, the organization has a volunteer shortage. The Ella Baker House is the only remaining J.V.C. community house in New York City, following the closure of the organization’s Bronx and Brooklyn locations in 2023. 

This problem is not exclusive to J.V.C. The Catholic Volunteer Network, an umbrella organization through which dozens of Catholic volunteer programs collaborate, post applications and share resources, has seen a significant decrease in the annual number of volunteers who have joined its 77 different service member organizations, especially following the Covid-19 pandemic. Five of their member programs have closed permanently.

In 2016 to 2017 the organization had 48 community sites in 37 U.S. states and six in other countries. In 2020, Jesuit Volunteers International, the organization’s global arm that offered international placements, was shuttered. Just two years ago, a cohort of 186 volunteers served in 30 different community houses across the United States. But in an email to its alumni network last Sept. 21, J.V.C. announced that it “paused its presence” in 12 communities, beginning with its 2023-24 cohort of 89 volunteers. And today, four of the remaining J.V.C. houses currently operating in the United States have only two volunteers living in them. 

Civic engagement, racial equality and the environment are often named as top concerns of Gen Z. Last year the child poverty rate in the United States reached 12.4 percent, up from 5.2 percent the previous year. The opioid epidemic and mental health crisis affect millions of Americans. Climate change plagues the lives of our nation’s poorest. Full-time volunteer programs offer many ways to help. So why aren’t these post-grads volunteering?

Ruined for Life

“Ruined for life” is a phrase used by many former members of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps to describe how their lives were forever changed by dedicating themselves to a year of service. The significance of that phrase has not been lost on this community in Harlem. Throughout our visit, the Harlem volunteers talked about the phrase, which was coined by Jack Morris. S.J., the founder of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in 1946. Being ruined for life is “a blessing,” writes Father Morris in his book with the same title. “Once a volunteer, never again in your life could you ignore the plight of people living on the margins.”

The lifestyle of the Harlem volunteers offers a strong foundation for this way of thinking. This community of four postgraduates receives $456 a month, given to them by J.V.C. toward community expenses, like food, cleaning supplies and utilities. Group grocery lists are made and finances are split up at the community’s Sunday business meetings. “We never feel strapped, but we do shop consciously,” Jen tells me. In addition to the money given to the community, each volunteer receives a personal stipend of $105 per month, which they consider to be their “salary.” It keeps them bound to their promise of simple living in one of the most expensive cities in the United States.

Past and present (front row) Jesuit Volunteers gather at the Ella Baker House in New York City. Courtesy of Jen Lozano, Jesuit Volunteer
Past and present (front row) Jesuit Volunteers gather at the Ella Baker House in New York City.
Courtesy of Jen Lozano, Jesuit Volunteer

Father Morris writes, “I envisioned these young volunteers acting as ‘mini-Jesuits’ who needed formation in ministry.” It is in community that volunteers get to “imagine God’s point of view in their work, and do something great beyond themselves,” as Father Morris writes. 

In an article in America in 2006 commemorating the 50th anniversary of J.V.C., George Anderson, S.J., wrote that “currently, the number of volunteers serving here in the United States has dropped from a high of 500 to approximately 350.” (That number has fallen more drastically since; as noted above, the 2023-24 cohort is down to 89.) This drop in number was not due to lack of interest, wrote Father Anderson, but instead to “the very success of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps model.” By this, he meant that other volunteer organizations, both religiously affiliated and secular (including the Peace Corps and, later, AmeriCorps) began following the J.V.C. model of living simply, dwelling in community with fellow volunteers, and fighting for justice for the poor and marginalized. Young people looking for volunteer work had an increasing number of options. 

Today, however, fewer young people are choosing full-time volunteer work after college, and volunteer organizations have been forced to adapt. And the current volunteers have noticed.

“We felt the impact at orientation,” Jen tells me.

New volunteers begin the formation process in August before moving into their community homes. During orientation for the 2023 cohort of volunteers, the staff honored the recent closing of the 12 communities. Jen said that while the orientation program was exciting, there was a feeling of sadness when the community closings were acknowledged. 

Conor Burke, one of the volunteers in Harlem, told me he had once hoped to volunteer through Jesuit Volunteers International but was “forced to pivot” after its closure. Conor now volunteers at the Part of the Solution food pantry in the Bronx, helping neighborhood residents fill out forms for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. “I hope they can bring back [the international option] for future volunteers, but at this rate, who knows if J.V.C. will be around at all.”

Before the pandemic, J.V.C. was receiving up to 400 applications per year, said Rob Roa, director of recruitment for the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. After the pandemic that number dropped to approximately 250. While application numbers have remained steady in post-pandemic years, the number who ultimately choose to embark upon a full year of service and living in the community has decreased significantly. 

It is not just Catholic volunteer organizations that are seeing a decline in the number of participants. According to their annual impact reports, the Peace Corps has experienced a significant decrease in the number of volunteers, dropping from 7,240 in 2020 to just 2,530 in 2023. 

Marian Uba, the executive director of Mercy Volunteer Corps, a full-time volunteer program associated with the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas, said she has noticed this trend, too. She said that while the Mercy Volunteer Corps has historically had 30 to 35 volunteers, this year it has only 11 volunteers in six cities. In November, the organization sent an email to its former volunteers asking them to share their volunteer experience with others, in the hope of increasing interest. The email cited significant declines in the number of volunteers in the last two years and mentioned “various factors including a lack of volunteer opportunities during the lockdown, increased student debt, the perception of improved job prospects, and a general malaise following the pandemic” as causes for the change.

Amate House, a yearlong postgraduate service program in Chicago, is facing similar difficulties. Jeanine Balanda, the director of Amate House said that, previously, there were about 11 volunteer fellows in each Amate cohort. This year there are six. “You may get a good amount of applications, but then people that will actually commit to a year of service and leadership development is much lower than your actual applicant pool,” she said.

Cecilia Flores, the director of the Catholic Volunteer Network, said, “The pandemic caused a big disruption in the world of faith-based service.” Ms. Flores said hundreds of volunteers were pulled from their service placements at the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, and she knew of several programs that chose to close entirely after their numbers became unsustainable. According to the 70 respondents to a survey of C.V.N. programs, 56 programs placed volunteers in 2021, and 33 programs experienced a drop in funds.

However, the decline in the rate of volunteering in the United States predated the pandemic. Last year, The Washington Post reported that volunteerism in the United States has faced a “slow and steady decline for the past thirteen years,” according to data from the Census Bureau and from groups that track volunteerism. 

The Generosity Crisis

“The United States is facing a generosity crisis,” writes Dr. Nathan Dietz, the director of the Do Good Research Institute at the University of Maryland, in a study co-authored by Dr. Robert Grimm, “Understanding Generosity: A Look at What Influences Volunteering and Giving in the United States.” In the study, Dr. Dietz and Dr. Grimm note that in 2021, the volunteer rate—defined as “the percentage of adults who do unpaid work through or for an organization”—experienced its largest decline since the U.S. government began collecting data on volunteering in 2001. 

Charitable donations dropped in the wake of the February 2020 economic downturn and the all-time-high unemployment rate in April of that year, according to another report, “The Giving Environment: Understanding Pre-Pandemic Trends in Charitable Giving,” published by the Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Covid restrictions and caution also caused a downturn in volunteer rates, but according to these reports, the decline cannot be blamed entirely on the pandemic. In fact, the number of volunteers, from post-graduates who do a year of service to weekly soup kitchen volunteers, has been declining steadily since the early 2010s. 

Educational attainment “is the single strongest predictor of volunteering,” report Mr. Dietz and Mr. Grimm. The greater one’s educational level, the more likely a person is to volunteer. In an interview with America, Mr. Dietz explained that while increased job opportunities or societal pressures are among the reasons people seek out higher education, many have altruistic reasons, too. “People who enter college these days are placing a higher premium on going to college because they want to learn how to help other people [more effectively]—actually more than they have in any time in the past 50 years,” he said, citing surveys of college freshmen.

Jen Lozano, a 2023-24 Jesuit Volunteer, stands outside her service placement at Make the Road in New York City. Courtesy of Jen Lozano, Jesuit Volunteer
Jen Lozano, a 2023-24 Jesuit Volunteer, stands outside her service placement at Make the Road in New York City.
Courtesy of Jen Lozano, Jesuit Volunteer

My friend Jen’s post-grad volunteer work and her career goals are aligned. She works as a paralegal at Make the Road New York, and she plans on attending law school or pursuing social work following her year of service. “I knew my degree was not going to expire,” said Jen, “it would still be there and I could still use it to help others.” 

“Seventy-five percent of our fellows go on to graduate school,” said Ms. Balanda, the director of Amate House. They “tend to go into social services as well.” She cited medical school and law school as typical routes for the fellows because of the types of volunteer placements they are stationed in.

Caroline Dahl, an Amate Fellow in the 2023-24 cohort, explained that her undergraduate studies at Centre College in Danville, Ky., prompted her interest in a year of service.

“My education inspired and prepared me through a combination of educational and immersive experiences I engaged in during college,” Ms. Dahl said. “I felt further time in service to, and in solidarity with, those directly affected by poverty, homelessness and other social issues would be good for me. That’s where Amate came in.”

Ultimately, economists have trouble identifying any single reason why people donate time to charitable causes. That is because the “drive to volunteer,” as Mr. Deitz explains it, comes down to three primary factors based on the individual: intrinsic motivation, self-image and social esteem. Individuals volunteer because they feel good about themselves when they volunteer, and social norms and public expectations can encourage prosocial behavior.

But for those post-grads who volunteer within the Catholic Volunteer Network’s programs, there often is another reason, outside of the realm of economics. Many in the post-graduate volunteer world describe a spiritual draw to a year of service and feel “a call to serve.”

Understanding the Call to Serve

But the call to serve may be tempered for some by the inability to afford it. While there are more young adults with college degrees compared with the mid-2000s, the rates of giving and volunteering among college-educated young adults have declined. In fact, the debt that is incurred to pay for a college education can make a volunteer year a financial impossibility for many who might otherwise be willing.

​​The cost of education grows more expensive yearly, with a 180 percent increase, after inflation, in the cost of four-year, full-time college tuition over the past 40 years, according to the Student Loan Debt Statistics Report by the Education Data Initiative. The average federal student loan debt balance is $37,718.

“If people are facing obstacles or being discouraged from service, it’s not because they don’t feel like it’s important or that they do not want to do it,” said Mr. Dietz. “Because college is so expensive, you need to go into debt to earn your degree. And when you’re done, you pretty much have no choice; you need to pay those bills. So you need to look for a high-paying job.”

Sullivan Mielle, a volunteer with Mercy Volunteer Corps in Savannah, Ga., understands that pressure well. A year of service “is not what I was brought up being told about,” he said. “Society says to go to college, get a good-paying job, get married, buy a house and have a family. But that never settled well with me.” Mr. Mielle described his student loans and societal pressure as things that could have deterred his call to serve. His family was hesitant when he decided to take on a year of service. “They want me to be successful…. They know I have student loans, and that I could be using this year to save money.” 

My friend Jen told me she asked similar questions before her year of service: “It became a question of ‘Can I afford to press pause on [earning] money for a year?’” She said to herself before deciding: “In a year, will I be okay with whatever money I have left? Yes. Then let’s do it.” She now is relying on personal savings as well as scholarships from J.V.C. and Boston College that are designed to assist students whose financial situation may inhibit them from doing a year of service. 

Many of the Catholic Volunteer Network’s programs help volunteers understand if they qualify for student loan deferment, forbearance or income-driven repayment plans. But the uncertainty of those deferral plans holds many prospective student volunteers back. 

Student debt is not the only factor in decreasing applications. In the application process for the service programs, directors and recruitment officers have seen a common thread in the questions and hesitations from those who ultimately choose not to join their volunteer programs. “Young people are highly anxious about the state of the world, about the economy, about the earth, about Black lives,” said Marian Uba, the director of Mercy Volunteer Corps. “And I think it’s just creating this analysis paralysis. It could be that [potential volunteers say,] ‘Let’s get out and try to fix it.’ But they don’t see volunteerism as an avenue to that.”

Mr. Deitz’s research suggests that because of the strain the pandemic has put on the mental health of millions of individuals, there has been a decline among young volunteers. As he explained, “People feel depleted by all their responsibilities, and they just don’t have anything left in the tank to help other people, and [they feel] that they can’t make a positive difference.” 

A lack of awareness of many programs may also be at play. Many of the Catholic Volunteer Network’s member organizations rely heavily on the word-of-mouth testimony of fellow volunteers as a recruitment technique. Because fewer former volunteers have hands-on experience following the pandemic, fewer people are hearing about the volunteer opportunities.

The 2023-24 cohort of Amate House fellows in Chicago Courtesy of Inéz Philippi, Amate House fellow
The 2023-24 cohort of Amate House fellows in Chicago
Courtesy of Inéz Philippi, Amate House fellow

In addition, during the pandemic, many college students were not exposed to the typical career fairs and service opportunities that might have sparked an interest in these long-term volunteer programs.

Many students “were more withdrawn [during the pandemic] and they didn’t have the extracurricular programs that normally would lead a student to us,” said Ms. Uba of the Mercy Volunteer Corps. In addition, because students could not fully engage with leadership opportunities on campuses through clubs and organizations, the students who would traditionally apply may have lacked the confidence to apply, said Ms. Uba. “They’re the characteristics we’re looking for when we recruit for our programs: leadership ability, and taking advantage of opportunities to grow within the college or university that they’re serving.”

Although many students feel a spiritual call to serve, the institutional connection of many Catholic service programs may also serve as a deterrent to some young people. “Gen Z seems to be more distrustful of institutions, so participating in something that’s affiliated with the Catholic Church might be something that they are reluctant to do,” said Jeannie Balanda, director of Amate House. According to the report “The State of Religion and Young People 2023,” by the Springtide Research Institute, a survey of over 4,000 young people ages 13 to 25 found that 72 percent of young people were wary of organized religion, with 45 percent of young people trusting organized religion only somewhat, and 27 percent saying they had no trust in it at all. 

Mr. Roa also speculated that Gen Z has a tendency to focus on results. They want to see change in real time, he said, something that can be difficult in volunteer organizations working to battle structural injustices. “I do think this generation of young adults are deeply committed to impact,” said Mr. Roa. “They need to see the change they deserve while they are living through a world that can adjust quickly and can produce impact quickly, which is awesome. However, J.V.C. requires the slow work of formation.” 

This “slow work of formation” is at the heart of the service organizations involved in the Catholic Volunteer Network and is one major factor that separates these programs from secular ones. This formation is what Father Morris’s mission of being “ruined for life” was working toward, Mr. Roa said. “We are inviting [volunteers] to say, ‘Hey, don’t worry about impact, worry about investment, worry about committing to your community, and the investment and the rewards will be reaped down the line.’”

Reimagining Recruitment and Program Structure 

The vast majority of applicants to full-time volunteer programs are recent college graduates. But reaching an audience at a sufficient number of colleges and universities around the country can be costly—with no guaranteed return. Traveling to college fairs, printing pamphlets and hosting information sessions can be expensive, and the cost may be prohibitive, especially for smaller, lesser-known service organizations with fewer institutional connections.

Ms. Flores takes all of these factors into consideration when advising the C.V.N.’s 77 member programs on recruitment strategies. “How do we make it so that the volunteer landscape and missionary landscape doesn’t feel like we’re all recruiting and ‘fighting’ (some people use that language at our conferences) over volunteers?”

For the smaller organizations, the Catholic Volunteer Network partners with their administrators to sponsor a single booth at some of the larger college recruitment fairs. “That way we had a bunch of different programs there and programs that could send a rep,” said Ms. Flores.

“Programs depend on volunteers, so there is a level of competition,” she said, adding that they are continuing to try “to find creative ways to go about getting more people.”

Ms. Flores cited the Loretto Justice Fellowship, formerly the Loretto Volunteer Program, as an organization that has reimagined its mission. It moved from offering a nationwide, yearlong service program for post-graduate volunteers to offering a part-time program for social work and pre-law students at the University of Texas El Paso. The former volunteer program had 14 volunteers in five cities in their 2019-20 cohort, but in March 2020, each of those community houses closed and the Loretto Volunteer Program underwent a structural and financial transformation.

“Instead of providing housing, a stipend and health insurance,” said Annie Rosenkranz, the director of the Loretto Justice Fellowship, “we pay our volunteers the living wage in El Paso”—$14 per hour in the program’s pilot year. The Loretto Justice Fellowship had 25 students apply to fill five spots in the inaugural cohort of the 2023-24 pilot year, and the program hopes to fill seven spots in the next. 

Others are offering new forms of service. Mercy Volunteer Corps initiated a new, short-term volunteer option, with the hopes of drawing more volunteers who cannot commit to a full year of service. “It might be attractive for people who are trying to figure out what they want to do with their life for a couple of months,” said Ms. Uba. M.V.C. has launched programs that offer six- to eight-week service opportunities that focus on ecojustice in Vermont and immigration in Texas.

It is too early to say how effective these new recruitment strategies and volunteer opportunities will be, but Ms. Flores retains a positive outlook: “It’s so sad that [our programs] are closing, there is a piece of grief that comes with that. But it’s also necessary, I think, for the growth and expansion of this narrative, telling a new story of who the church will become in the years to come.”

Correction: Mr. Mielle uses he/him pronouns. A previous version of this article used she/her pronouns.

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