What is a project sponsor, and what do they do?

What is a project sponsor, and what do they do?

Every project needs a cheerleader. That’s essentially what a project sponsor is: an important figure who contributes resources and support while ensuring that everyone understands the project’s value.

The project sponsor is arguably the most important person on the team. Without them, the project wouldn’t exist. They’re the reason it was created, and ultimately, its success is decided by them.

Let’s take a closer look at what a project sponsor is, what they do, and how to keep them smiling from the project kick-off until after the dust has settled.

What is a project sponsor?

A project sponsor is someone who provides resources for the project to enable its success. While they’re usually a very hands-off role, they sit near the top in terms of importance. They advocate for its existence, and they own it. It’s also the sponsor who decides if the endeavor has been a success when the project is complete.

In a nutshell, the project sponsor does the following things:

  • Promotes the project’s value and makes sure it has the right resources to succeed.
  • Helps the project manager by providing guidance and knowledge.
  • Acts as another route of communication between the team, the stakeholders, and the wider community.
  • Acts as an escalation point if issues arise.
  • Defines criteria for the project’s success.

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What are the benefits of having a project sponsor?

While they’re not involved in daily tasks and meetings, they can greatly impact the project’s success.

They provide oversight

Project sponsors are a little removed from everyone else — kind of like a ceremonial figurehead. For that reason, they make a great impartial leader. They contribute advice, knowledge, resources, and support. This can be a huge help in the midst of things when everyone’s attention is turned to individual tasks. Sponsors can maintain a big-picture view of the proceedings.

They help organize team structure

Projects need structure, or else chaos reigns. With their experience and impartiality, project sponsors can help organize teams that best fit the project requirements, helping managers ensure the necessary roles are accounted for.

They help out in risk assessment

The project sponsor is usually highly experienced in the industry, with heaps of knowledge to share. This means they can be a big help when it comes to identifying (and avoiding) risks.

They help evaluate progress

Project sponsors can provide an objective point of view when issues arise. They can also be on-hand to offer support, extra guidance, and an opinion on how well the project is doing, including quality assessments and deadline feedback.

What does a project sponsor do?

Depending on the project and organization, this varies slightly. But generally speaking, their roles involve the following responsibilities and activities — ideally from the project conception to the project completion.

During project planning and initiation

Project sponsors are heavily involved in planning and defining roles and responsibilities. This includes selecting the project manager and project owner, as well as their duties. As the project progresses, it’s important the project sponsor doesn’t step on the project manager’s toes (and vice versa), so defining clear roles and boundaries at this stage is important. Alongside this, they help shape the project charter, check the project plan is feasible, make key decisions, and attend meetings leading up to project kick-off.

After project kick-off

After the project has begun, it’s the sponsor’s job to work alongside the manager to provide support and guidance, sign off deliverables, and review progress. They should provide feedback when needed but generally keep a step back so the PM can do their job without feeling micromanaged.

Project sponsors are also on standby in case there are any issues. With their hands-off nature, they make a good neutral point of contact in the event of a conflict.

During project close

The project sponsor is a stakeholder, and as such, has the power to declare the project a success or not. For this reason, they are heavily involved in the project closing duties. They oversee delivery and handoffs and make sure all records are up-to-date, signed off on, and stored correctly. They also facilitate project post-mortem discussions, where they — along with the rest of the team — evaluate schedules, costs, quality, and ultimately decide whether the project met expectations.

Top tips for working with project sponsors

As with every other team member, collaboration, communication, and openness are musts if the project sponsor is to have a happy relationship with the rest of the team. There are several ways to facilitate this:

1. Brush up on your organizational communication

Whether you’re leading the project or on the team, communicating effectively will help you achieve your goals and make life easier for others on your team. Good organizational communication is a potent mixture of knowing who you’re speaking to and how to deliver your message accordingly. This includes choosing the right channels, making sure contact is regular, and keeping it on-brand and in-line with your organization’s goals.

2. Be open and transparent

Because the project sponsor is a hands-off role, they can start to feel left out if not carefully managed. It’s the project manager’s job to engage with the sponsor, and how well this is done has a big impact on trust.

Trust is earned in a variety of ways: effectively communicating intentions, delivering on deadlines and promises, and ensuring the quality of the finished product are all vital. As such, sponsors need regular updates delivered in a clear, easy-to-understand format. Emails are a good option, as are collaboration tools that let sponsors follow the progress in real-time.

3. Invest in collaboration tools

Project management software is a great way to involve sponsors with less effort. Rather than sending out countless email updates and responding to requests, simply give them a password to log into the software and see how the project is progressing themselves. Progress charts make it easy for viewers to see real-time progress like deadlines, completed tasks, and budgets, while automatic notifications keep everyone on the same page simultaneously.

With Backlog, our own project management platform, you can organize displays to show relevant information while filtering out the rest. This level of transparency is exactly what project sponsors need. With the information they need at their fingertips, they’re in a better place to make informed decisions, while the project manager is freed up to focus on running the project.

Georgina Guthrie Georgina is a displaced Brit currently working in France as a freelance copywriter. Before moving to sunnier climates, she worked as a B2B agency writer in Bristol, England, which is also where she was born. In her spare time, she enjoys old films and cooking (badly).