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project sponsorship

project sponsorship definitions, purposes, examples - project sponsor role and responsibilities

This article explains concisely how project sponsorship relates to and differs from project management (see project management), and also defines and gives examples of typical responsibilities and activities within both the project sponsorship and project management roles.

Project sponsorship is linked very strongly with principles of leadership, and is improved by awareness of different leadership theories, styles, models, etc.

Project sponsorship is also closely connected with delegating responsibility and related techniques.

Having a basic understanding of different personalities and motivational issues is also helpful for interpreting and performing the project sponsorship role effectively and successfully.

Project sponsorship is quite different to project management.

In some ways - notably the detailed ranges of duties - the differences are similar to the differences between leadership and management.

The role of a project sponsor is therefore different to the role of a project manager. (See differences between project manager and project sponsor below.)

However project sponsorship and project management are linked crucially together, and are mutually dependent roles.

Both roles are necessary for any large organizational project to be properly conceived and successfully completed. This is particularly so for projects of scale and duration that are outside of an employee's normal day-to-day responsibilities, which many projects are.

In a very small organization the two roles may effectively be held by the same person, for example where an owner-manager instigates and then manages a project, or where a director of a small company instigates and manages a project. Accordingly, in small-scale situations the roles of project sponsor and project manager effectively combine into one role which comprise all duties.

All substantial projects in organizations generally require a formal and senior 'project sponsor' or 'executive in charge', although relatively minor projects which are part of a manager's normal duties, especially projects contained within a department [for example the re-design of packaging, or the translation of materials, or the training of new skills, etc], and not requiring specific board or corporate approval, may not require a 'project sponsor' as such, in which case executive accountability for the project and the project manager belongs to the normal up-line reporting manager/executive.

Project sponsorship applies to large projects which affect different departments, and certainly which entail board/corporate approval, and which require involvement/agreement/support from external stakeholders.

Essentially project sponsorship is a senior role, usually held by a person (rather than a group or organization*), responsible for:

*A project sponsor is usually a person, however in many big situations (typically of national or international significance) responsibility for project sponsorship may rest in corporate terms with a group or organization, in which case many or all of the usual project sponsorship duties and accountabilities will in turn be held by an individual within the sponsoring group/organization.

project sponsorship - definitions

Sponsorship here means 'ownership', in terms of corporate accountability. It does not mean personal underwriting or funding, and it does not refer to interpretations of publicity/endorsement/PR (public relations) that in other situations are commonly associated with the words sponsorship and sponsor (such as sports brand sponsorship of sports teams or individual players).

Sponsorship here does however definitely refer to the sense of a person 'putting his/her name to something', or 'pinning one's personal reputation onto something', i.e., the project.

A project sponsor might be defined very simply as:

"A person who justifies and enables a project to become established, and then who oversees and maintains corporate accountability for the successful management and delivery of that project through the appointment and appropriate support of a suitably qualified and empowered project manager and project team."

A slightly different perspective, of project sponsorship, is as follows:

"Project sponsorship equates to the executive accountability for a project - by which a project is defined (in terms of need, outcomes, scope, timescales, and financials), then funded, agreed with all interested parties, and then suitably resourced from inception to completion, notably including the appointment and pragmatic support of a project manager."

Here is a longer definition from Wikipedia:

"Project Sponsorship is the ownership of projects on behalf of the client organization. There are two main differences between project sponsorship and project management:

  1. Firstly project sponsorship includes the identification and definition of the project whereas project management is concerned with delivering a project that is already defined, if only quite loosely.
  2. Secondly the project sponsor is responsible for the project's business case and should not hesitate to recommend cancellation of the project if the business case no longer justifies the project."

(Wikipedia - Project Sponsorship, March 2013)

The definition above additionally clarifies the key responsibilities of the project sponsorship role as being to ensure:

The definition additionally details the project sponsor's capabilities and attributes as including:

differences between project sponsor and project manager

The differences between a project sponsor and project manager are shown quickly and clearly in this simple table summary of the key activities of the two roles. A more detailed table is shown below.

These differentiations are flexible to a degree, depending on situations, particularly the scale of the organization, project, and the experience and style of the project manager and project manager concerned.

Generally larger organizations and projects will tend towards more separated roles. Smaller organizations/projects will typically entail more cooperation and merging of the two roles.

The colour/color-coding signifies strong responsibility (green), and low responsibility (red).


project sponsor/manager roles differences (overview summary)

activity project sponsor project manager
project instigation based on opportunity or need may assist
project aims and main financials fundamental purpose, justification may assist
board/stakeholder liaison and approval agrees 'business case' may assist
appoints PM writes profile; interviews, decides may volunteer
writes project plan oversees, approves may delegate parts
appoints project team may assist, approves may enlist PS help
reporting systems may assist may delegate
manage project may assist people, tasks, financials, timescales
corporate accountability absolute
operating responsibility absolute
reporting overview, to board and stakeholders detailed, to all interested parties
failure/risk analysis and remedial action at corporate level at project level


Projects vary greatly in scope and size, value and complexity. The notes and weightings below are merely a guide. This analysis of role separation does not apply to small owner-managed businesses and other small operations where the project sponsor is also the project manager, in which case one person nevertheless must still fulfil the two columns of responsibilities:

The colour/color-coding signifies strong responsibility (green), and low responsibility (red).


project sponsor and project manager roles/differences

(The numerical weighting indicates typical degree of involvement. 5 = fully; 0 = none.)

  responsibility/activity of role   project sponsor   project manager
a project conception/instigation 5 typically driven by opportunity or reaction to threat or problems 1 may assist - does not lead
b project definition/outcomes 5 fundamental purpose 1 may assist - does not lead
c board approval/liaison 5 defines 'business case' (strategic or technical justification) 2 may assist - does not lead
d stakeholder liaison 5 seeks/achieves buy-in, aligns support 2 may assist - does not lead
e project manager selection/appointment 5 may delegate via HR but writes profile; interviews, decides 1 may volunteer for role
f defines project aims and measures 5 linked to a b c d above, forming project manager objectives 3 usually assists or contributes
g defines/agrees precise project manager role and terms 5 including enablement of role within organization, wider environment 3 usually assists or contributes
h writes detailed project plan 1 oversees and approves final plan 5 may delegate parts to project team members
i assembles and appoints project team 2 may assist - esp where team includes large external providers 5 requires PS approval for substantial appointments
j establishes reporting and monitoring systems 1 may assist 5 may delegate technicalities where team includes such resource
k agree team member tasks 1 may assist - esp where team includes large external providers 5 may enlist help of PS where team members are large external entities
l manage team performance 1 may assist - esp where team includes large external providers 5 people, tasks, financials, timescales
m corporate accountability for project and PM performance 5 absolute - and is a crucial difference vs PM role 0 achieved via point n below (project responsibility)
n operating responsibility for project 0 achieved via accountability for PM 5 absolute - and is a crucial difference vs PS role
o reporting project progress and results 3 overview, key points, to board and stakeholders 5 detailed reporting to team and other interested parties, esp PS
p failure/risk analysis and remedial action 5 at corporate strategic level of project need/impact 5 at project level
q review, appreciation, publicity 5 at corporate level, esp recognition of a successful project and PM 5 at project level, for team


These differences vary according to situation.

For example, a highly capable project manager is likely to seek and be given more of the project sponsor responsibilities. A less experienced less competent project manager may be largely uninvolved in project sponsorship areas, and may warrant a considerable amount of supervision or intervention by the project sponsor, especially if the project is big and has serious organizational implications.

The principles of delegation apply strongly to project sponsorship, and the relationship between project sponsor and project manager.

Leadership style is also usually a big factor in the successful conduct of project sponsorship, especially for large projects.

A project sponsor must adapt his/her style in managing the project manager according to the relative degrees of:

Encompassing more specifically:

Where there is low risk, difficulty, value, etc., and high project manager competence, then the project sponsor can relax a little more about the situation than where these two key variables are inverted (high project risk, value, etc., and low project manager competence).

Below is a simple model diagram: the 'Project Sponsorship Styles Matrix'. The diagrammatic model illustrates the different implications/management styles for project sponsorship and the project sponsor role, according to the two main variables of 'Project Challenge' and 'Project Manager Competence'.

The left-side scale is the project challenge (scale [size], difficulty, importance, etc). The bottom scale is the competence of the project manager (skills, experience, confidence, etc) in relation to the challenge. The 2x2 matrix produces four main management styles or approaches by which the project sponsor manages/directs and delegates responsibility to the project manager.

project sponsorship styles matrix

  project sponsor style/approach  

Project Challenge (scale, values, importance, complexity, difficulty, threats, risks, pressures, etc)

Hands-on Watching
Coaching Hands-off
  low ------ Project Manager Competence----- high 

© A Chapman/Businessballs 2013 - Project Sponsorship Styles Matrix Model

Accordingly, a project sponsor will tend to adopt a 'hands-off' position (high degree of delegated responsibility/freedom) towards a highly competent project manager responsible for a small low risk project. This equates to the higher levels, 9-10, of delegated freedom/responsibility in the Levels of Delegation structure.

Conversely a project sponsor should employ a 'hands-on' position (closely instructed, directed, monitored, supported) towards a project manager with low competence, who is responsible for a highly challenging project. This equates to the lower levels, 1-2, of delegated freedom/responsibility in the Levels of Delegation structure.

The opportunity and tendency for the project sponsor to adopt primarily a 'coaching' approach applies where a project manager of low competence is responsible for a project of low challenge. This equates broadly to levels 3-5 in the the Levels of Delegation structure.

And finally, to complete the four main styles, a project sponsor will tend to adopt a 'watching' position (being available to help/advise, while monitoring from a distance) towards a highly competent project manager who is responsible for a high challenge project. This equates broadly to levels 6-8 in the the Levels of Delegation structure.

The Tannenbaum and Schmidt Continuum is also a very useful reference model for understanding, teaching and conducting project sponsorship, notably how the style/approach of the project sponsor must adapt according to circumstances, especially considering the capabilities of a project team, beyond the competence of a project manager.

The Tuckman 'Forming, Storming, Norming Performing' model is also very helpful in considering project sponsorship style/approach in relation to the wider project team, and in fact suggests (by obvious implication) that irrespective of the competence and experience of the project manager and individual team members, all projects which bring together a project team for the first time should at their outset be subject to quite close involvement by the project sponsor, at least until the team demonstrates that the group dynamics and relationships have settled and become reliably established.

project sponsorship 'job description' checklist of main activities

Here 'job description' is a somewhat loose reference, because project sponsorship is not a conventional job. Project sponsorship is a 'virtual' job role, which by necessity is performed in addition to conventional executive or senior management duties. In fact by implication of the role itself, project sponsorship can only be fulfilled by a senior employee as an addition to normal duties (typically that of being a senior executive or director, or conceivably a non-executive director or chairperson).

Rather than present these items in a single collective listing it is more helpful to show these responsibilities and accountabilities in terms of a structured leadership model, in this case John Adair's Action-Centred Leadership® model, which categorizes the key responsibilities for managing and leading according to a three-part approach (briefly summarised as):

This structure enables a clear presentation of the project sponsor's duties:

1. The Task (i.e., the project)

2. The Team (i.e., the stakeholders, board, corporate/external project team members, project manager and team)

3. The Individual (i.e., the project manager)

It is important to note that (depending on the particular project situation - size, complexity, and experience and capabilities of project sponsor and project manager), a project manager may be quite deeply involved in assisting the project sponsor in any of the above. Refer again to the differences between the project sponsor and project manager roles, and particularly to the project sponsor styles matrix.)


summary - project sponsorship

Project sponsorship, and the role of project sponsor, are quite different to project management and the role of a project manager.

Both roles are mutually dependent, and generally found alongside each other in large projects within large organizations.

The principles and duties of both roles are generally necessary within small projects in small organizations although may be the responsibility/accountability of one person.

Project sponsorship is concerned chiefly with corporate and top-level project justification, funding, liaison, analysis, reporting, leading, and decision-making about the project's implications for the organization and wider situation, together with vital, specific and pragmatic support for the project manager role itself.

(Whereas project management is chiefly concerned with the project's detailed planning, team selection, resourcing, and day-to-day management, together with appropriate monitoring, control and reporting of progress, results, and need for adjustment/adaptation where required.)

Leadership and delegation are crucial reference concepts for understanding and performing effective project sponsorship.

Ethical leadership is also a crucial concept for project sponsors, since many project managers (especially of a relatively low rank in large organizations) may struggle to justify proper consideration of ethical and related issues at a corporate level. And if ethics are not considered and embedded into projects at a senior level, then it becomes extremely difficult to expect consideration of ethical matters within projects at an operational management level.

You will find many other useful related concepts and areas of management, relationships and communications within the resources that are linked from this article.


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© alan chapman/businessballs 2013