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Project Sponsorship: Definition, Relationships, Pitfalls

Eric McConnell
August 31, 2011


project sponsorship If you are a project manager wishing to be effective and bring your project to successful completion, then you must be at an authority level within your organization at least one higher than your team. Certainly you’re a project manager so this means you are already at a higher level. But I don’t mean your managerial status as compared to your team. I don’t say about the relationship “manager-team” which entails direction and subordination.

What I mean is that the overall success of your project (incl. your own effort and your team’s activities) significantly depends on decisions and guidance of the project’s senior management, or a group of people having higher authority to govern, control and coordinate your project. I’m talking about project sponsorship which presents the role and duties of project sponsor.

Unfortunately, not all project managers today understand the definition and importance of the sponsor role. Complex projects often include a wide range of management roles, so it becomes confusing for those managers to determine what duties and responsibilities a project sponsor is supposed to perform and how the role contributes to or effects project results. Furthermore, the overall necessity of project sponsorship may be neglected.

Taking all these considerations into accounts, I’ve decided to write an overview of project sponsorship to help you and other managers to explore the definition and role of the project sponsor and identity the key duties and responsibilities. This article is first and describes the definition, relationships and pitfalls of project sponsoring. I plan to write a series of articles about project sponsorship. Please keep track of the website updates to read all the articles about this topic.


First of all, let’s find out what the term means. I saw many definitions of project sponsorship (thank God the Web provides a lot of information and literature on this topic!). Those definitions differ from each other in some aspects. But in this article I won’t talk about the differences. I tried to assemble a common definition of project sponsorship. Here it is:

Project Sponsorship is a series of relationships between a provider of resources or services (the sponsor) and the management team of the project to establish and assign the ownership of the project to the provider and to identify the amount of work to be done by the project. It determines how much investment the sponsor needs to make in the project and what commercial advantage the sponsor gains in return for the sponsorship investment.

Sponsoring a project means supporting this project by providing necessary money, technology, information or other resources that are of value to the project and its success.  The sponsor uses the Business Case as the primary document to determine whether the project is worth of initiation and further development.

Regardless of the definition of sponsorship, the term has come into widespread use in the context of internal projects which are projects owned by and performed within a single organization.  It means that the sponsor along with the project manager, the customer, the team and other stakeholders are co-workers and employed by one and the same organization.

When a project is performed and controlled by people from various organizations then this project is managed under a contractual arrangement, for example in construction projects. The term project sponsorship is less widely used in such projects because the parties involved regular

Establishing Sponsorship Relationships

If you’ve ever read the literature on project management, you probably know that meaning of project sponsorship often covers the process of matching the best candidate to the sponsorship requirements and then ensuring that this candidate takes right actions to move the project towards the right direction.

Below I suggest a five-step process for establishing the sponsorship relationships. The process lets decide what and how to sponsor a project.

  • Analysis. First of all, you must analyze the current situation within your project and identify whether this situation contributes to success of the project goals and objectives. If you see that there is a lack of support of the project, then you can define the need for sponsoring the project.
  • Objectives. Now you need to determine the objectives of investing money in the project. In other words, you must answer the question, “What results should the project sponsor deliver to make the project successful?”
  • Strategy. In order to implement the objectives the project sponsor needs to have some plan that specifies key implementation steps. Such a plan is called sponsorship strategy. The strategy determines how the sponsor is supposed to act to complete the objectives and move the project to success.
  • Tactics. The strategy is a high-level that specifies the general direction for action. It does not say anything about concrete steps or procedures. The tactical plan is required for the sponsor to agree the details of what to invest in, the price, timing, expectations etc.
  • Resources. Finally the sponsor needs to know how many financial resources are required to make the sponsorship effort successful and move the project to completion.

Pitfalls in Project Sponsorship

Although project sponsorship appears to be of high significant to internal projects of an organization, there are several pitfalls that often make the role of sponsor inefficient or uncertain. Below I present three major pitfalls.

  • The role is not defined and recognized by personnel.
  • It is vital for the effectiveness of the role that the project team, senior management and stakeholders clearly understand what duties and responsibilities the sponsor is expected to carry out. Project staff is supposed to formally recognize the need for sponsorship and have visibility within the organization. Problems may arise when there is no formal document specifying definition of the project sponsor role. Also it is important that the sponsor role does not capture or intersect the role of the project manager because otherwise the sponsor will do the manager’s duties and this will entrain project misleading.

  • The project sponsor requires the necessary training and guidance.
  • As it has been said above, project sponsorship is mostly applicable to internal projects within one organization. The role of the project sponsor is assigned to individuals who may not frequently act in this role and thereby may not understand what’s required of them. Without the necessary training, advice and guideline they may not have a proper understanding of the project management process. That’s why it is strongly required to support the candidates by providing training and guidance in the field of project management.

  • Rotation of project sponsors.
  • This pitfall is that for many projects it is normal that the sponsor role is assigned from one to another person throughout the project implementation cycle. Employee rotations in the role may cause loss of focus and constitute a threat to project success. New candidates to the role may not understand the duties and responsibilities and may not have the same vision of the project as the previous sponsor. That’s why potential difficulties in changeover should be considered and addressed before the project starts.

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