One of the most important relationships on your project will be the one you have with your project sponsor. Knowing how they think and how best to get on with them will really make your project fly, and remove problems along the way.

But what does a sponsor do? Or rather, what are they supposed to do? This article will explain everything.

The Role of the Project Sponsor

The role of the project sponsor is to authorise the project. The sponsor is ultimately accountable for the benefits and owns the business case as well (even if you or other colleagues had a lot to do with putting it together).

The sponsor authorizes the resources, as the people required normally work for them, and they hold the budget that you’ll be using. Authorizing is only half of it: they also need to make those resources available to you.

The sponsor’s official role starts during the project initiation when that business case is put together. Your sponsor is head of your project organization and is ultimately accountable for the success and failure of the project and the realization of benefits.

You’ll probably know already that you have a direct relationship to the sponsor as the project manager. While you might not be ‘officially’ working for them – they most likely aren’t your line manager – for all intents and purposes they are your boss for the duration of the project.

The project assurance team, if you have one, reports directly into the sponsor too, so they are that little bit independent from you.

OK, so now that the role is clear, let’s talk in a bit more detail about what they do.

1. The Business Case

Yes, the business case – again! It’s important enough to mention again because so many projects start without one.

The project sponsor owns the business case. This means they are responsible for writing it, preparing the analysis and putting forward the final paper during the Initiation phase of the project. They will also own and realize the benefits that are detailed in the business case. Part of this involves checking that the project is on track and that the business case is still valid, at various points throughout the project.

Of course, they’ll have you and the rest of their team to help, but ultimately it is their responsibility to get the outcomes that have been documented and agreed.

2. Project Approvals

Does your project lurch forward from start to end? That’s not how it is supposed to be. The project sponsor has a responsibility to approve the project move forward to the next stage.

This is done through a formal sign off process at the end of each stage or phase. You might call these phase reviews, stage reviews or gate reviews. Whatever they are known as, whether they are informal or formal, it’s a meeting that the sponsor attends and most likely chairs. It reviews the project performance over the last period or phase and reviews the plans for the next piece of work.

The point is to assess whether the project is still viable. Using this information the sponsor is responsible for deciding whether the project should progress or not.

While most times you’ll experience the sponsor agreeing that you can move into the next phase of work, the possibility here is that they decide you shouldn’t. They have the power to close down a project and might do that during this review and approval process.

3. Resources

The sponsor doesn’t allocate resources to tasks – that’s your job – but they are supposed to get you the people and other resources that you need to allow you to deliver their vision.

You’ll have to specify what you need, based on information from your project management plan. While your sponsor probably won’t sit down and review your plan in PrimaveraReader they will expect you to be able to summarize what’s required and justify why you need certain resources.

They are also going to get involved in dealing with resource conflicts and prioritising resources. This can be really helpful if another line manager is involved and you can’t sort the problem out yourself.

4. The Project Board

The Project Board is another governance tool. It’s a group of  senior project stakeholders and it should be chaired by the sponsor. It will also include the key user, a key supplier contact and you as project manager.

Overall, the Project Board is responsible for governance and oversight and the sponsor is responsible for making sure that the group is effective.

This can lead to some quite challenging conversations for the project manager, so be prepared to justify your decisions and explain yourself in these meetings!

5. Risk Mitigation Plans

Finally, the project sponsor is responsible for approving the risk mitigation plans. You can read more about risk management plans in this article, but essentially if you are putting forward a course of action that costs money or takes time or has another significant impact of some sort, you should be telling your project sponsor. They can then approve (or decline) that as a route forward.

It’s not your job to make the final call on what to do on some of your bigger risks, and it’s worth having a conversation with your sponsor at the outset of your project so you know what they want to decide and what they are happy delegating to you.

Ultimately it is up to you to manage the relationship with your sponsor, but knowing what they should be doing is a step in the right direction to understanding how that relationship is working on your project.