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Project Sponsorship

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 sponsor and project management roles.

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

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 organisational 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 organisation, 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 the project sponsor and project manager effectively combine into one role which comprises all duties.

All substantial projects in organisations generally require a formal and senior 'project sponsor' or 'executive in charge', although relatively minor projects 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 organisation*), responsible for:

  • Instigation and conception of the project (the project's broad aims and required outcomes)
  • Financial/commercial/corporate justification of the need for the project
  • Overseeing project viability from a corporate finance standpoint
  • Establishing initial project funding, resources, specific outcomes, and timescales (typically called the 'Terms of Reference')
  • Appointing and managing the project manager
  • Managing corporate review of the project's progress and success - including veto/cancellation/redefinition/extension as appropriate

*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 organisation, 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.


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.

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 organisation. 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:

  • Separation of decision-making responsibilities between the project manager and project sponsor;
  • Accountability for the realisation of project benefits
  • Oversight of the project management function, and
  • Management of senior project stakeholders

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

  • Appreciation of corporate strategy
  • Preparation of business case
  • Profound knowledge of organisational operations
  • Respected within organisation
  • Stakeholder coordination/liaison
  • Ongoing involvement (because changing a project sponsor is generally harmful to a project unless the incumbent is inadequate)

Differences Between Project Sponsor and Project Manager

The differences between a project sponsor and a 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 organisation, project, and the experience and style of the project manager and project manager concerned.

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

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-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 organisation, wider environment 3 usually assists or contributes
h writes detailed project plan 1 oversees and approves the 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 the 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 the 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 the 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 a 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 the 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 organisational implications.

The principles of delegation apply strongly to project sponsorship and the relationship between the 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:

  • 'Project Challenge' (difficulty, scale, importance, threats, risk, etc) and
  • 'Project Manager Competence' (competence, experience, style,

Encompassing more specifically:

  • Size and complexity of the project (difficulty - linking to risk)
  • Importance of the project (values attached, penalties arising, etc - linking to risk)
  • Risks and threats (attached to project failure, overspending, under-performance, lateness, etc)
  • The suitability in all respects of the project manager for the project (skills, knowledge, experience, style, confidence, commitment, reputation, contacts, etc)

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 apply where a project manager of low competence is responsible for a project of low challenge. This equates broadly to levels 3-5 in 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 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 categorises the key responsibilities for managing and leading according to a three-part approach (briefly summarised as):

  1. Achieve the task (the project),
  2. Manage the team (project team and stakeholders, etc), and
  3. Manage the individual (project manager).

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

  1. The Task (i.e., the project)
    • Defines and agrees with the overall strategic and corporate aims of the project - 'the business case' ('Why are we doing this?').
    • Defines justify and agrees/secures overall budgets, resourcing and timescales.
    • Defines and agrees on the fundamental project terms of reference or 'project charter' (purpose, organisational relevance, measurable top-level targets/outcomes, project governance and authority structure, top-level financials and timescales, limits, exclusions, risks, ethics, other substantial factors such as legal, IT, environmental, PR, international, political)
    • Top-level monitoring of quality, progress, and results.
    • Big decisions beyond the authority of the project manager.
    • Publicises and promotes projects internally and externally (is the 'project champion' and prime advocate).
    • Seeks feedback and opinions about progress, methods, conduct, etc., from interested, affected, and especially influential parties.
    • Has the right of project veto (upon serious crisis) and fundamental decision-making responsibility for project direction/future.
  2. The Team (i.e., the stakeholders, board, corporate/external project team members, project manager and team)
    • Liaises, mediates, negotiates and secures agreements among stakeholders and executives (board), and other interested institutional and regulatory bodies.
    • Establishes necessary respect and support internally and externally for the project, project manager, and team ('clearing a path' and 'smoothing the way').
    • Ensures that the rights and safety of the team, especially employees, are secured and protected as far as is reasonable, especially for team members whose joining and commitment to the project entails some personal risk (and this principle extends to corporate members where exposure to risk could be harmful).
    • Chairs high-level meetings where appropriate.
    • Remains open to and interprets feedback from all team members (and crucially in so doing will refer issues wherever possible back to the project manager - thus is working with and supporting the PM, not undermining).
  3. The Individual (i.e., the project manager)
    • Selects and appoints project manager.
    • Supports, mentors, and develops the project manager.
    • Assesses project manager's performance and development needs gives feedback and involvement in arrangements for needs to be met.
    • Assists the project manager where required (planning, strategy, team selection, liaison, presentations, conflict, crisis, etc).
    • Guides project manager through top-level issues and implications (policy, politics, strategy, regulatory, etc)
    • Motivates, leads, directs, recognises, praises, and rewards project manager wherever appropriate.
    • Informs project manager of top-level issues and implications affecting the project as they arise.
    • Protects the project manager from unjustified negativity from objectors and anti-project activists, especially emanating from senior powerful levels.
    • Considers and arranges a fair and appropriate exit from the project for the project management when the project terminates.

It is important to note that (depending on the particular project situation - size, complexity, and experience and capabilities of the 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.


Project sponsorship, and the role of the 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 organisations.

The principles and duties of both roles are generally necessary within small projects in small organisations 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 organisation 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 those of a relatively low rank in large organisations) 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 in this article.

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