A project sponsor is the person who champions your project.  Typically, they also control the money and resources and is the senior end customer: the head of department of the area that will get whatever it is that your project is delivering. The sponsor may even be the person who came up with the idea in the first place.

They can be very senior in the organization or not so senior: in terms of hierarchy it doesn’t really matter provided that the people who need to take action respect their decisions. Your project won’t succeed if a very junior manager is assigned to be sponsor and he or she is unable to take the day-to-day decisions on the project relating to the allocation of resources or spending money.  Ideally, they will also be well-positioned to iron out any internal politics for you and have the ear of people who matter: another of their roles is to cascade down information that may be of relevance to your project or team.  More on that later.

Research shows that a good sponsor is important for project success.  Unfortunately, you might not be able to choose someone who meets all these criteria.  In fact, you’ll probably not get to choose at all.  Sponsors nominate themselves, or are nominated by other senior managers where a project may cover several areas.  If no one to fill the role of sponsor is immediately evident your PMO may work with the executive team to establish exactly where the project fits and therefore who would be best placed to champion it.  All that will happen before a project manager gets assigned.

People in the role of sponsor also suffer from having many different demands on their time and your project may not be on top of their list, especially if they became sponsor by default.  They might not have ever been a sponsor before, and they might not know what is involved.  If they don’t know what it is they have to do, you can be sure they won’t be able to make the time to find out.  You have to be there to help them discover what being a sponsor means and to explain what you expect from them.

Perhaps this article should be entitled ‘Project Sponsors: what should they do?’ 

What should the project sponsor do

This is a non-exhaustive list of what a project sponsor should do on your project:

- represent the project at a (senior) management level

- maintain a general overview of the project but without getting involved in the detail

- keep the project manager informed of any changes or developments that may have an impact on the project

- put their name to and help with communications about the project

- offer advice and make decisions

- put forward and/or support the case for a comprehensive budget for resources

- chair the steering group

- read, understand and sign off project documents

- act as an escalation route for issues and problems

- anything else (within reason!) to support the project at the request of the project manager

If you are working with an inexperienced sponsor you might need to ‘manage up’. This involves working with your sponsor to establish what you need from them.  Set clear boundaries.  Understand whether you can approach them at any time with queries or if you should contact them within the framework of regular meetings.  Do they prefer contact by email, phone or face to face?  Find out how they would like to receive status updates.

The beginning of the project is normally the best time to introduce a sponsor to their role.  Try to find out what experience they have had, what went well and what they found difficult about sponsoring previous projects, but be warned that senior managers may not be willing to share their experiences with you.