Blue Spaces – Wales update: our approach to assessing expressions of interest

Earlier this year, we launched Blue Spaces – Wales, with an open call for expressions of interest for projects that support communities to improve their local freshwaters. Midway through the grant-making process, Jenny Wheeldon, Esmée’s Freshwater Partnerships Manager, shares our approach to assessing applications and what’s next.

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To learn more about our thinking behind the development of Blue Spaces – Wales and what we set out to achieve, read Jenny’s previous blog: Working in partnership to support blue spaces in the UK.

In developing Blue Spaces – Wales, we decided to take a different approach to funding, in the hope of encouraging new and unusual partnerships, and help us reach beyond our existing networks and partnerships that are already well established. Through the programme, we wanted to support work that engages with and is shaped by the diverse communities in a place, and tests new ways of working.

Blue Spaces – Wales offered development grants of £10,000 to £60,000 to support organisations to develop their ideas over a one-year period. Alongside the funding, we are also developing a learning approach to support and facilitate learning for the funded projects as well as help us share what we learn more widely.

Developing Blue Spaces – Wales and the open call

We had previously commissioned the Cardiff University Water Research Institute to undertake a review of organisations working to restore the freshwater environment across the UK. This helped to inform our Blue Spaces programme. We prioritised Wales because we’re less familiar with work being done there, and we wanted to learn more about what’s happening beyond our usual networks.

In early 2023, Esmee’s Our Natural World team held an information session in Cardiff attended by river trusts, public bodies, campaign groups, wildlife trusts and researchers. The session was a chance to outline our ideas for a Wales-specific funding call and gather feedback, which helped us to further develop the programme and open call for projects. We also ran a webinar for potential applicants and provided a dedicated email address for questions. The call window was then open from 21 March until 2 May 2023.

We received 39 eligible expressions of interest in addition to one through our main application process, with a total value of £1.9m. These were all assessed by a panel in line with Blue Spaces – Wales criteria with 8 projects totalling £456k shortlisted. They meet a range of the programme’s aims including engaging communities affected by deprivation, farming related, arts, and new partnerships. We anticipate receiving the proposals by the end of September and aim to make decisions by December 2023.

Below, we share more about our assessment approach, alongside an overview of the 8 projects invited to submit a full proposal, and a summary of the expressions of interest we received.

We are grateful for the interest in this programme and feedback we’ve had through its development. We hope it's helpful to share our process with fellow environment funders as well as everyone who has applied. We look forward to sharing more in due course.

Our assessment approach

Our assessment approach was informed by our past experience assessing proposals submitted to Riverwoods initiative which supports projects aiming to create a network of thriving riverbank woodlands in Scotland, and our Reinventing Performing Arts funding, which provided extra support to arts organisations we fund to support their reopening plans in the light of the pandemic.

1. Forming an assessment panel

The assessment panel comprised three members of the Our Natural World team and four young consultants from Esmée’s Involving Young People Collective. Working with the young consultants helped to bring young people’s insights and expertise to enrich and inform decision-making within the Blue Spaces programme, which we found invaluable.

2. Developing scoring guidance

To select a longlist of expressions of interest, we developed scoring guidance and criteria reflecting the aims of the overall Blue Spaces programme. The criteria included consideration of how the expression of interest:

  • Supports people and organisations to look after their local freshwaters
  • Engages with and is shaped by the diverse communities in a place particularly those who experience discrimination or face barriers to accessing nature
3. Scoring and agreeing a longlist of applications

After the deadline for the call, each member of the panel scored all eligible expressions of interest. They then met on 23 May to review the collated scores and agree a longlist of 15 expressions of interest.

4. Follow-up calls with longlisted applicants

We invited the longlisted applicants for a follow up call with a members of the panel. Before each call, the panel was given a summary of the expression of interest, initial scoring and follow up questions. At the end of each call, the panel reviewed the application based on all the information given and agreed a provisional recommendation to decline or invite to submit a full proposal.

5. Agreeing a shortlist to invite to proposal

Once all the follow-up calls were complete, the panel met on 13 June to review and agree the recommendations. In total, 8 of the 15 expressions of interest longlisted have been invited to submit a full proposal, demonstrating how they might use a year's funding to develop projects with communities to benefit freshwater.

Overview of the 8 projects invited to submit a full proposal

The 8 projects we have invited to submit a full proposal cover the full range of Blue Spaces - Wales criteria, which you can see in the table below. Some projects meet more than one criteria.

Criteria met Number invited to submit a proposal
Communities affected by deprivation 3
Technically novel 1
Innovative finance 2
Farming related 3
Arts 2
New partnerships 2
Natural flood management 1

Summary of process and applicants

We assessed 40 expressions of interest against the Blue Spaces - Wales criteria. The assessment panel agreed a longlist of 15. We then spoke to all the longlisted applicants to find out more about their expression of interest. The selection panel then agreed a final set of 8 expressions of interest to invite to submit a full proposal.

Type of organisation No. of applications received No. longlisted and invited for a follow-up call No. invited to submit a full proposal
Society/Trust 2 0 0
Environmental NGO 7 3 2
Wildlife Trust 3 2 1
River Trust 5 4 3
Campaigning 7 2 0
Law foundation 1 0 0
Arts 2 0 0
Council 1 0 0
Commoners 1 0 0
Coastal forum 1 1 1
Gardens/parks 2 0 0
Area of Outstanding National Beauty 1 0 0
Academic associated 3 1 0
Farming and food 3 1 0
Community Interest Company 1 1 1
TOTAL (Value) 40 (£1.9m) 15 8 (£456k)

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