Excellence award: IBM volunteer in Germany helps make the walk home safer

Jack Manning
As a human resources
professional, Anne was
a good fit to help a new
organization address its
need for people power.

Jack Manning
As a human resources
professional, Anne was
a good fit to help a new
organization address its
need for people power.

The majority of sexual assaults happen near or at a victim’s home, with about 30% traveling to or from work or school, and mostly between 6:00 PM (1800) and midnight.

In those vulnerable moments, an organization in Germany known as Heimwegtelefon (“Way home telephone”) provides a friendly and reassuring voice on the other end of the phone for those who feel at risk.

In 2014, IBM volunteer Anne Barten, a human capital management consultant for IBM SAP solutions in Berlin, helped the founders of Heimwegtelefon lay the groundwork for the organization.

“This was during my parental leave,” Anne recalls. “I liked the idea of doing something meaningful and wanted to spend some hours volunteering in my free time.”

Four years later and back full-time at IBM, Anne is still a big part of the management and operations of Heimwegtelefon, volunteering about four to five hours a week there.

In 2018, she received an IBM Volunteer Excellence Award for her work.

People power

The idea of a hotline while walking home or from school is not new; it just didn’t exist in Germany.

“Frances Berger and Anabel Schuchhardt were aware of a service in Sweden,” says Anne. “The idea was great, so they stopped asking themselves why something like it was not offered in Germany and founded Heimwegtelefon.”

However, like most start-ups, Heimwegtelefon—which is solely funded by private and corporate donations—needed infrastructure, processes, and most of all, people; more precisely, volunteers to support and deliver its mission.

Anne, as a human resources professional, was a good fit to help the fledgling organization address its need for people power.

For Heimwegtelefon, trusted and trained volunteers were needed to answer calls from all over Germany and become telephone companions to people needing accompaniment.

In the first year, Anne organized more than 200 interviews with potential volunteers.

Communicating for positive outcomes

“We actually started with five people,” she remembers. “But after the number of calls increased, we hired over 100 volunteers and today have nearly 40 call agents plus other volunteers who work in the background.”

She also created and continues to manage the onboarding process for the volunteers spread across Germany—the volunteers use a computer at home with a softphone to answer Heimwegtelefon callers from throughout the country.

Anne’s outreach for volunteers makes heavy use of social media as well as word of mouth. Some callers have become volunteers; helping others as they were once helped.

On social media, Anne spreads awareness about the service while also attracting volunteers, media attention, and supporters.

“Since I started, our Facebook followers have grown from 2,000 to 22,000,” Anne says. “Also, as our volunteer team grew, we were able to extend the service time from three hours on the weekend to six hours, and to offer the service on the weekdays for four hours.”

A natural conversation

Today the team receives about 10 to 15 calls each week day and about 25 calls per day on the weekend.

“People who are on their way home at night can call our hotline,” Anne says. “It doesn’t matter if they are male or female, young or old, or where they are located in Germany. We accompany them to their destination.”

Teachers and parents are beginning to give Heimwegtelefon’s telephone number to their students and children.

“We have a guide for our agents and volunteers to begin conversations by asking about a caller’s location and destination,” Anne says. “After that the volunteer asks something about the city or activities the caller did during the day. Mostly callers are coming from a party, sports, cinema or work and the volunteer asks about that to have a natural dialogue.”

Anne remembers one call at night during the winter from a young man in a wheelchair waiting for a bus that never arrived.

“Our agent felt the person was cold, in distress and needed help. We called the police and they helped take the man home.”

Though emergency situations are rare, the volunteers are trained and prepared to provide geolocation information to the police based on where the call originated.

Anne says, “During the last three years, you can count the number of emergency incidents on one hand. We almost never have any serious crimes on a call, but there have been suicide attempts and fake calls.”

Good soul behind the scenes

While fake calls are a problem—they would drive up Heimwegtelefon’s cost for a toll-free phone number—another challenge facing Anne is managing volunteer turnover.

“The fluctuation is very high and we’ve needed to establish a quick process to get new people on board, in order to cover the service times,” she says.

In addition to the immediate positive input volunteers often get from callers, Anne is also trying innovative approaches to keep their volunteer motivated, such as discounts from businesses such as gyms and museums, and public acknowledgment.

Beyond identifying, hiring, training and motivating a volunteer work force—a complete job in itself for some—Anne also has responsibility for Heimwegtelefon’s email communications, social media marketing, press relations, event organization and information materials.

On Heimwegtelefon’s website, Anne’s title loosely translated into English is “good soul behind the scenes.”

“At Heimwegtelefon, I get more practical experience leading and motivating other people, which will help me with my career at IBM,” Anne says.

She adds, “I like to read the feedback we get on Facebook from callers and it makes me proud to be part of helping others be safe; that is personally very satisfying.”

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