Water company Severn Trent’s purpose is ‘taking care of one of life’s essentials’, which underpins its approach to sustainability. Providing water to over 8 million people across the Midlands every day and helping people to thrive is one of the company’s pillars of sustainability. Core to its philosophy is investing in creating a healthy and sustainable ecosystem, rather than focusing on what directly benefits them as an organisation. ‘To be truly socially purposeful you have to be contributing where there’s no return other than for your communities as a whole,’ believes HR Director Neil Morrison.

Organisation: Severn Trent

Sector: Utilities

Size: 7,000 people

Connecting with community

Headquartered in and serving the Midlands, Severn Trent can claim to be truly embedded in the local community. ‘Our customers and our communities are one and the same,’ explains Morrison.

In January 2020, the firm launched a community fund, committed to donating 1% of its profits annually to charitable causes that boost community wellbeing across the region. A panel of customers decides where the grants should be spent across three themes: people, environment and places. It donated a further £1 million directly to charities helping the community with the impact of COVID-19. ‘We knew that charities needed liquid funds: not promises of a year or two,’ says Morrison.

During the pandemic, it also reduced its payment terms for its supply chain, paying on receipt: ‘It was about keeping the regional economy liquid.’

It’s a holistic approach focused on boosting the regional economy and creating sustainable and thriving communities. A significant investment in green initiatives, for instance, will create thousands of jobs in the local economy, mainly through Severn Trent’s supply chain. A focus on understanding the root causes of water poverty will help vulnerable customers, for instance by providing help to young adults leaving the care system, who often find themselves in financial difficulties.

Employability is a major theme, with Severn Trent committed to supporting 500 young people through the Kickstart Scheme and to offering 100,000 hours of employability training in its community over the next two years.

Role of the people profession

Morrison believes HR leaders need to think more broadly about social purpose and their role in creating and maintaining a thriving ecosystem beyond the boundaries of the organisation. ‘Ultimately, our supply chain employs more people than we do,’ he says. ‘HR leaders should be thinking outside of their workforce.’

The profession can also play a role in providing structure around community strategy. ‘A lot of organisations end up trying to be everything to everyone, but having structure is beneficial.’ For Severn Trent, that means providing clarity around the kinds of projects it will fund via its community investment grants and creating a governance structure at board level.

Morrison also cautions against the unintended consequences that a rush towards hybrid working may have on local communities, if it means becoming disconnected from customers and creating more regional disparity. ‘Businesses need to get into regional communities, because then they can create benefits in those local communities,’ he says.

The challenge is going to be for organisations to show their net positive contribution to society, and that needs to be owned by HR.

Neil Morrison, Group HR Director, Severn Trent

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