To help inform a review of our current strategic plan, and to begin thinking on the development of our new strategy, we appointed Ruth Flood Associates (RFA) to undertake an interim evaluation of the AHF’s Strategy 2016-19. RFA undertook the work between April and June this year. The main elements of the consultant brief were to:
- assess the AHF’s progress against delivery of our current strategic aims;
- gain feedback from a number of funders on currently live programmes;
- consult clients (both grant and loan recipients) on their experiences of working with the AHF;
- review the organisation’s ‘theory of change’ and approach to impact measurement.
The main findings of the evaluation were:
- All the projects included in the research attributed significant milestones in their activities to the AHF investment of time and funds. A number of the projects reliant on the AHF acquisition loans would (arguably) not have proceeded as the buildings could not have been purchased. Risky projects, which needed early project viability grants to develop further, would have struggled to make the case for restoration and re-use. Community driven organisations with limited experience would have struggled without the AHF support officer input to help them develop their plans, access funding and gain specialist advice.
- Funders and beneficiaries were positive about the AHF. Funders emphasised the complementarity of their activity and partnership working with the AHF; many felt that the AHF was seen to offer more guidance, support and direction to organisations than funders generally do. Beneficiaries perceived the AHF’s early stage support to be unique in the funding eco-system, considering it to be the AHF’s core area of distinction. They also considered that the AHF funding gave their projects traction and credibility for other funders.
- Funders felt that the AHF needed to maintain the right future role within the funding ecosystem, recognising challenges in the funding environment and in providing sufficient support to community enterprises with limited expertise to deliver successful community asset transfer projects.
- Non-heritage organisations had a general awareness of the AHF’s activities and in working together, but stressed that opportunities would always need to include a community focus beyond the heritage or historic building outcomes.
- Beneficiaries broadly divided into two general groups. Those who saw themselves as benefiting mostly from funding and those who benefited from both funding and advice. The former group was most likely to be experienced Building Preservation Trusts and the latter community groups and social enterprises. The AHF’s Support Officers were highly regarded by less experienced beneficiaries as providing essential enabling advice, guidance and support. Less experienced beneficiaries also appreciated the fact that the AHF’s processes helped them to develop plans robustly and professionally. A number of organisations new to capital projects felt they would benefit from even greater help from the AHF at the outset to further understand the processes involved.
- Beneficiaries were acutely aware of the difficulties involved in getting project funding. Some beneficiaries identified the AHF’s requirement (in some programmes) for matched funding as a factor that slowed some projects down.
- Some beneficiaries fed back on the comparatively high level of interest rates on some loans when compared to high street lenders; although it was recognised that heritage projects, particularly those at an early stage, were often too risky for high street lenders. A number of borrowers saw the organisation’s flexibility and package of support alongside a loan as a key reason for choosing to borrow from the AHF.
- All funders mentioned ‘place-making’ as an emerging key priority for government which was therefore having an impact on funding agendas. Some felt that the AHF could focus more overtly on place-making in future.
- Funders generally regarded the AHF as demonstrating impact well, although some felt the ‘theory of change’ model and overall approach was too complex. A number of beneficiaries, particularly from small organisations, found measuring impact to be resource intensive and impacts difficult to measure.
Matthew Mckeague, the Architectural Heritage Fund’s CEO, commented: ‘These findings will be enormously helpful to us in refining our programmes and services and in understanding what the organisations we work with need from the AHF, both now and in the future. We’ll be reflecting further on the findings and as we develop our new strategy ready for launching in early 2019.’