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Unlock Our Future Fund Evaluation: What it looked like

An insiders view, by Marion McDonald

The Unlock our Future Fund (UOFF) delivered its fifth year of grant making in 2023, and this milestone was marked with an external evaluation and fund review to examine the impact of funding over that period, and make recommendations for the fund going forward. 

At the time, I had just taken on the task of managing the fund, and supported the fifth round of grant making over the summer of that year. Compared to the very local place-based funds I already supported in my role, which related to onshore wind, UOFF represented a very different approach in that the fund covered a much wider area of Aberdeen city and shire, and had of course a focus on climate action.

Managing that 2023 funding round was a steep learning curve for me, but with the support of an enthusiastic and knowledgeable decision-making panel, which is made up of local people, we were able to make a range of awards to some great projects, from solar panels for a new community hub at Boddam, to supporting students in Aberdeen to grow food, reduce waste and support active travel.

eventThere was another new experience for me in the autumn, as the fund holds an annual event for awardees which brings groups together to celebrate their funding success and share their experiences. 

This was a really useful and positive day, which might well be worth delivering in other areas.

I was then able to support the processes involved in the evaluation and review of the fund.  

For me, the review offered a great opportunity to look back on the overall impact of the fund, and take some time to reflect on what had been achieved, as well as the future development of the fund.

Five years was a key milestone for what is a pretty unique fund, so the evaluation and review work was put out to tender, with the contract awarded to Bea Jefferson, a former colleague who had worked on the fund in previous years. 

This was really positive from my perspective, as Bea already knew the fund very well, so she was able to bring her considerable experience of evaluation, along with her knowledge of the sector and specific knowledge of the fund, to plan and carry out a thorough study.

I was involved at various stages, helping Bea in the set-up process, to survey applicants, awardees and stakeholders, and identify projects to feature as case studies. I also took part in the Theory of Change session which Bea ran with the panel. This was a chance to take time to consider the wider outcomes and impacts of the fund.

Bettridge CentreThe review pulled together information on all of the projects that had received awards in the five years since the fund began operating.  

In that time, the fund had made 68 awards with a combined total of £662,526, supporting energy improvements, electric vehicles and active travel, outdoor space, equipment and lighting, capacity building and feasibility and research work. 

It was an impressive array of projects, ranging from the very practical realms of insulation and new windows to a whole range of creative and innovative solutions.

One thing the evaluation did highlight for me was the challenge in measuring project impact, particularly trying to quantify the difference a project makes.

Although some of the energy projects in particular do lend themselves to monitoring and number crunching, it is not always straightforward. Our standard reporting cycle is one year after an award is made, so may mean that a project is complete - for example, if technology has been installed - but has not been operational for long, and therefore benefits have not fully materialised. There is also the impact of a harsh (or mild) winter on energy use, and the fact that improvements to facilities, for example, can lead to much more use of that facility, so bills might still go up.

For me, the best and most powerful parts of the evaluation are the case studies. It was great to be able to revisit projects that had been funded several years ago to really see the difference they had made in the community, and the range of positive feedback from group members and also project beneficiaries was inspiring.ecargo bike

The range of benefits, while not unexpected, was still good to see all laid out. 

There were some great examples that really underscored how environmental projects bring so many other benefits – reduction in carbon emissions, yes, but also reduced running costs, improved comfort, less air and noise pollution, better outdoor spaces, and more awareness, to name a few.

The case studies also considered the projects which did not go to plan, and I think that was a really useful aspect which doesn't tend to be the focus of press releases or fund reports, for example. 


But actually, this can be where the most useful learning is for other groups, helping them (and decision makers) to have the courage to take risks.

The other purpose of the study was to review the fund strategy and ensure that it was fit for purpose for the next few years. Various suggestions came forward based on discussions with applicants and stakeholders. 

These were then reviewed by the panel – and Vatenfall – and in fact, there was little structural change to fund delivery, decision making and priorities. This was partly due to the perceived success of what had been achieved and, to a certain extent, a recognition that this relatively small fund did have certain limitations.

So while long term, core funding may well be what groups need in order to be able to adequately address climate issues, but this fund has limited capacity to make that happen.

The main change to the fund strategy was to increase the level of award to £20,000 for a single year, to focus promotion of the fund in the north to address the lack of projects funded there, and to aim to find a way to include young people in decision making going forward, perhaps through targeted panel recruitment.

The fund strategy has already been updated based on the review, and the year sixth funding round is currently live and underway. As well as that practical outcome, I hope that the report will be widely read and serve as an inspiration to other groups and potentially to other funds.

You can read the Unlock Our Future Fund Review Part 1: Impact Evaluation here

You can read Part 2: Consultation and Review here

You can read the Executive Summary here