How the Helpforce Volunteer to Career programme boosts recruitment and retention at Cheshire & Wirral Partnership NHS Foundation Trust

26th January 2024

Donna Cain Holding Vt C plaque

The Helpforce Volunteer to Career (VtC) programme has boosted support for staff and patients at Cheshire & Wirral Partnership NHS Foundation Trust (CWP) whilst simultaneously offering a career path and further training in healthcare for volunteers. Three volunteers now work within the Occupational Therapy Department at CWP as an Occupational Therapy Technical Instructor, Physiotherapy Assistant and Fitness Instructor.   

Another two volunteers have gained paid work in external health care environments as an Activities Coordinator and Health Care Assistant in local care homes, but they have continued to volunteer at the hospital as they value the experience and support that the VtC programme at CWP still offers them.


The Trust was awarded funding from NHS England to run the Helpforce Volunteer to Career programme in 2022, which aimed to create a pathway that enables volunteers to explore careers in health and care more easily.    

Donna Cain, Volunteer to Career Coordinator for the trust, said:

“The lead clinician attached to the programme and myself arrange meetings with leads from different departments, to identify which areas would value a volunteer within their team. Those teams identified then created suitable role descriptions which were meaningful to both the service and volunteers. Occupational Therapy was one of the departments identified as being able to support volunteers within their team."

Maria Yuen, Lead Occupational Therapist (pictured below) along with other members of the team recognised the value volunteers on the programme could bring to the service. Not only could volunteers “improve the experiences for service users and support the work that paid staff provide” the programme allows volunteers to make a more informed choice about their future career and gives people a better understanding of the workplace.

Donna continued:

“The programme provides a valuable hands-on experience, supporting volunteers to develop new and existing skills, increasing confidence, communication skills and the ability to take on responsibility for themselves, which would give them the knowledge and experience to apply for any posts that become available within the department. The programme influences the quality of the future workforce building a talent pipeline, which supports some of the challenges the trust has identified around recruitment. 

“The main challenge within our Therapy and Fitness Teams has been the time required to recruit and train new staff, when existing staff leave their posts. Our teams could always have more staffing, as would be true of many teams in the NHS.”

Occupational therapy staff work across many inpatient areas, one of which is Cherry ward, a Dementia Care Unit at Bowmere Hospital, in West Cheshire. Specialist Occupational Therapist Sophie Williams identified that she would find value in having a volunteer within her team on the ward, and so she was keen to be involved with the Volunteer to Career programme.   

Henk Vermeulen, the Ward Manager for Cherry Ward said:

“Apart from staffing, specific challenges for Cherry ward (being an organic/dementia ward) have been the high number of patients on the ward needing one-to-one observations.   

“The reason for this is that care homes are also struggling with recruitment of staff and are therefore often not willing to accept someone who needs one-to-one support, which means these inpatients must stay in hospital for longer.    

“The high numbers of patients needing one-to-one observations on Cherry Ward impacts on the available time that staff have to spend with other patients, or time spent on training or supervision.”  

Armed with this information, the Volunteer Services Team created volunteer roles based on what clinicians had told them and packaged the roles within a wider advertisement piece for the VtC programme. Donna said:

“From there, we invited candidates to a discussion-based interview where they were asked general questions relating to volunteering.    

“As well as being requested to provide and share a one-page profile about themselves identifying what people appreciate about them, what is important to them, and how to support them. This allowed the VtC coordinator and Lead clinician the opportunity to get to know the person a little better and identify what their interests and aspirations were.    

“We then carried out a tabletop exercise to match the ‘volunteers’ interests to the roles the clinicians had asked for. This helped us settle volunteers into areas they were interested in working in and gave clinicians the extra support they had identified.   

“For example, one of our volunteers, Carrie, was a qualified fitness instructor interested in working within the NHS.  We identified that the physiotherapy team would be a good match to her skill base and aspirations, and we placed her with them for her volunteering role. Carrie was able to assist with showing exercises to patients, but we were concerned that she’d feel held back by the restrictions of what volunteers can and cannot do. As it turned out, Carrie ended up loving the role and now has a temporary paid job within the physiotherapy team!” 

Lead Occupational Therapist Maria Yuen echoes the benefit of matching roles to volunteers’ skills. Maria said:

“Our team’s experience with volunteers is that they also bring their own skills and experience, which bring new dimensions and quality to our service.   

“Our team does require adequate staffing to train and supervise volunteers, especially when volunteers are new – our most successful experiences have been where volunteers have the right skill set for an area, and staff are in post to maximise the potential contribution of volunteers.”  

What kinds of activities did volunteers do as part of the programme? 

A range of volunteering roles that were identified these included Admin Support Volunteer, Inpatient Ward Volunteers, Fitness and Wellbeing Volunteers, Physiotherapy Volunteer, Community Mental Health Volunteers and Therapeutic Activities Volunteers. 

In Occupational Therapy, lots of different interventions are used to aid patient recovery. Emily Ramsdale, (pictured below) Occupational Therapist Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU), shared the benefits of having volunteers:

“The therapeutic activity volunteer on the PICU ward encourage people to be more active in outdoor spaces; helping people go for walks, gardening, playing games, anything that takes recovering patients outside of the hospital environment.”

“People can get stuck on the wards, so when we are able, we do try to take people outside, catering activities towards their interests. Art therapy and anything involving food is always popular! We have one patient who sees his daughter once a week, so is motivated to make things for her. The volunteer supporting the PICU ward has a background working as a primary school assistant so helped him make a 3D Snakes and Ladders board so that he could play this with his daughter. It was lovely.”

The volunteer team’s approach has led to the recruitment of 12 volunteers enrolling onto the Helpforce VtC programme at CWP. Having a designated VtC coordinator managing the programme has meant that there is a central link between volunteering services, clinical teams, staff and volunteers involved in the project. The VtC coordinator provides volunteers with person centred practical help, emotional and psychological support, and assistance with any difficulties that should arise during their volunteering role.    

Working alongside each volunteer to motivate, support and coach them in a meaningful way, to aid them in building up their skills to potentially access and sustain paid employment, or progress to further developing their skills in a chosen area following successfully embarking on the volunteering programme. As part of this support each volunteer has had access to regular supervision with the VtC coordinator and a wraparound Training and Development Plan created closely with Education department at CWP ensuring these meet each volunteer’s needs. Since volunteers enrolled on the programme back in April 2023, five are now working in health and social care, and more are expected to apply for paid roles in the future. 

Catherine de Zwaan (pictured below), Patient and Carer Experience Team Manager & Voluntary Services Lead said:

“The Trust has really valued the benefits brought about by the Volunteer to Career programme, specifically in terms of supporting with recruitment challenges. Therefore, we have committed to extending the programme for 6 months, with a view to further extending after this period.

Why has Helpforce VtC worked at CWP?

Donna believes that Helpforce VtC is a model that gives consistency for volunteers. Combined with an app the trust uses to help volunteers log their hours and provide evidence towards gaining experience for their National Volunteering Certificate, the programme also provides volunteers with supervision, staff-shadowing, and a volunteer wrap-around training package that incorporates a virtual academy.    

“Helpforce VtC has helped us demonstrate the impact of volunteering and helped us to meet the strategic needs of the trust in terms of the recruitment, retention and funding challenges we face.    

“We would recommend this programme to any NHS trust experiencing the same or similar challenges to us.” 

How has Helpforce helped CWP? 

The impact of the Helpforce Volunteer to Career (VtC) programme at CWP is wholly positive and still being felt. Emily speaks of the joy of having someone extra to help her carry equipment, chat to people and building a rapport with therapy groups as being invaluable.   

Donna agrees but is keen to leave health care leaders with another huge benefit to think about:

“Volunteering is often not seen as a strategic function that can support hospitals and other health and care organisations. But the Helpforce Volunteer to Career programme can really help with that culture change towards volunteering. 

“It has shown the value volunteers bring to an organisation. It has helped with recruitment and retention, easing the pressure and constraints on staff, and most importantly providing people who access our services with extra support, reassurance, and comfort. Helpforce run regular online sessions where VtC leads can meet, ask questions, share information and ideas.    

“Everything is facilitated by the Helpforce Programme Managers who are so knowledgeable. They share information and resources and can answer questions you may have.”

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