One of the most straightforward transactions in the foundation world is the no-cost extension. In our program at the Hewlett Foundation, at least, our practice has been to approve them routinely. A grantee simply writes to say that work is progressing more slowly than expected and that they wish to have the end-date for the project pushed out a few months (or longer) with no change in the overall budget. We say yes, and change the dates in our grant file so that we know when to expect the final report. This is so easy—a few keystrokes, really—that it’s natural to think there is no negative consequence, no reason to question, no cost.
But that’s wrong.
The cost of no-cost extensions is, in fact, quite high. If the Foundation is doing its work correctly, we should be supporting work that is relevant, high-impact, and urgent. It should matter—a lot—if a study is published this year or two years from now, if a policy working group concludes its work before or after the next regional summit. We should be supporting work that is going to change lives for the better—with no time to waste. It should matter to us, and it should matter even more to the researchers and policy advocates who are doing the work. If the delay doesn’t matter, then I think we have some pretty important questions to ask about why not.
We should never refuse the occasional, well-justified request for a no-cost extension, of course. A longer-than-usual rainy season can delay data collection, and when a crucial team member quits unexpectedly, the clock has to stop until a replacement can be found. Life happens. But we’ve had lots of grantees who routinely ask for and seem to depend on no-cost extensions—yes, my academic friends, I’m looking at you (although not just at you). No-questions-asked no-cost extensions enable procrastination and poor project management, and send the signal that later is as good as sooner. That’s simply not true, and its a habit we want to break.
In the Global Development and Population Program, some grant awards now come with the warning that we will not approve no-cost extensions, and that if the funds are not expended by the scheduled end of the project, they will have to be returned to the Foundation for other uses. We’ve heard some grumbling, and in a couple of cases we’ve ended up getting checks back from prestigious universities. But, all in all, the reactions have been more positive than negative, because our message has been correctly interpreted: your work matters a lot, to us and to the world. So get it done and make a difference, today. Isn’t that what we should all want to hear?