Project Sponsors: Role, Responsibilities, and Type

By Kate Eby | October 16, 2021

Regardless of industry, most successful projects have a project sponsor. We’ve gathered expert tips and insight to help navigate the nuances and necessities of this important role.

Included on this page, you’ll find information on the role and responsibilities of a project sponsor, what makes a good project sponsor, and a template to assign roles and responsibilities within your project team.

What Is a Project Sponsor?

A project sponsor is a senior management role that provides resources, support, and leadership to the project team and generally “owns” the project. This person also serves as a link between the project manager and other decision-making groups. 

The amount of time the project sponsor must devote to an assignment varies depending on their role within the company (for example, the company's CEO might have less time to spend on the project than a director or product owner). Make sure to discuss the role and expectations before the project begins, so that everyone understands their part and contributions.

A project sponsor may also be called a product sponsor, a project director, an account manager, or a business unit manager.

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What Is the Role of the Project Sponsor?

The project sponsor plays a critical role in project vision and governance. The project sponsor monitors progress, helps resolve issues, and acts as an additional line of communication among team members, customers, and stakeholders. 

Read our guide on integrated project management to learn more.

In the 2006 conference paper “Exploring the role of the project sponsor,” authors Les Labuschagne, Terry Cooke-Davies, Lynn Crawford, Brian J. Hobbs, and Kaye Remington explain that the project sponsor will have different objectives within the following three categories of relationships in an organization:

  • Vertical-Up: These relationships include the executive leadership team, such as the chief executive officer, chief financial officer, and chief information officer. In the paper, Labuschagne writes that the project sponsor is “charged with fulfilling the strategic objectives that the executive team has formulated.”
  • Horizontal: These relationships include representatives from key stakeholders and program managers who are “responsible for achieving the business benefits of the new products or service that the project manager delivers,” according to the paper.
  • Vertical-Down: These roles include the project or program manager and project team. The project sponsor will, in Labuschagne’s words, “require the project manager and team to perform their activities effectively and efficiently, and in turn, the same is expected from the manager and team’s perspective.”

Project Sponsor Responsibilities

The project sponsor’s role incorporates the entire project lifecycle, with different responsibilities throughout each phase of a project, as detailed below:

  • Planning Phase: The project sponsor ensures that plans are realistic, serves as an escalation point for issues and challenges, and observes the project team’s effectiveness. 
  • Implementation Phase: The project sponsor works with the project manager to provide feedback, identify the root cause of any issues, and acknowledge the completion of milestones.
  • Closing Phase: The project sponsor conducts a post-project evaluation on the project performance. Additionally, they hold space for constructive feedback on the project’s success or failure.

A project sponsor should be prepared with questions for each phase of the project, as follows:

  • Planning Phase:
    • What is the purpose of this project, and what does success look like?
    • What will be required of me for this project?
    • Who are the key stakeholders, and what is their level of involvement?
    • What are the staff requirements for this project? Do we have that availability? 
    • Are the cost estimates realistic for the client’s budget?
  • Implementation Phase:
    • How can we improve the plan?
    • Is there anything I can do to help?
    • What project risks do we need to address?
    • Are there any concerns or issues that need to be addressed? 
    • Are we on track with milestone completions?
  • Closing Phase:
    • What made this project successful or unsuccessful?
    • What can we do differently next time?
    • What issues did we run into, and how can we prevent them for future projects?
    • What would have made this project easier?
    • Do you have any feedback for me?

Example of a Project Sponsor

In an implementation project for a software company, the project sponsor might be the data services director. They oversee the implementation, web, and product teams; receive updates and approve requests from the project manager; and field questions and provide resources to all three teams.

How a Project Sponsor Differs from Other Team Members

It can be confusing to differentiate the project sponsor from other roles on the project team, since they work so closely together. However, the differences among roles become more apparent when you break down the responsibilities of each.

Roles and Responsibilities Template

Roles and responsibilities Template Powerpoint

Download Roles and Responsibilities Template

Microsoft PowerPoint | Google Slides

Use this template, available as an editable PowerPoint slide, to understand, organize, and assign roles within your project team. The template includes space to add a brief description of responsibilities for each role and to note how each role compares to that of the project sponsor. Easily assign a team member to each role, and include the template in your larger project meeting presentation.

Project Sponsor vs. Project Manager

While a project sponsor provides resources and support to ensure successful outcomes, a project manager focuses on project execution and deliverables.

Henrico Dolfing

Henrico Dolfing is a project recovery consultant and the author of The Project Success Model. “Project managers deliver projects; project sponsors deliver business value,” he says. “As a project sponsor, you are ultimately accountable to the organization for delivering business outcomes and benefits. The project team and steering committee exist to help you deliver the outcomes and realize the benefits.”

Project Sponsor vs. Product Owner

The project sponsor focuses on vision and resource utilization, and they serve as an advocate for the product. The product owner advocates for the end user and guides the team with informed decisions based on feedback.

Project Sponsor vs. Project Owner

The project sponsor serves as a line of communication between the project team and decision-makers. By contrast, the project owner acts as a line of communication between the project sponsor and the project manager.

Project Sponsor vs. Project Champion

A project sponsor is a formal role that provides resources and guidance to team members. By contrast, a project champion is an informal role that provides team members with inspirational and motivational support, as well as serves as an advocate for the project to ensure stakeholders are satisfied.

Project Sponsor vs. Project Stakeholder

The project sponsor is part of the executive leadership in the organization that owns the project, whereas a project stakeholder includes anyone invested and affected by the project.

Project Sponsor vs. Executive Sponsor

The terms executive sponsor and project sponsor are often conflated. However, they may differ if the executive sponsor is a senior member or chair of the project board — in this scenario, a project sponsor acts as the communication link between the project board and the project team.

Role of Executive Sponsor in a Project

An executive sponsor is concerned with achieving project success and aligning the project to the vision and strategy of the business. The executive sponsor maintains communication with the project sponsor and the rest of the project board for updates on the project’s progression.

Project Sponsor Organization Chart Template

Project Sponsor Organization Chart Powerpoint

Download Project Sponsor Organization Chart Template

Microsoft PowerPoint | Google Slides

Use this template in your project team presentation to assign roles and visualize role hierarchy and organization within the organization. This template is a helpful tool to remind project team members of their point of contact.

How to Get a Project Sponsor

You can simplify the process of choosing a project sponsor by preparing explanations of the roles and responsibilities. Ensure that the project sponsor knows what is expected of them, as this helps you identify the best fit for the project. 

Once you know what you are looking for, prepare to meet with candidates by following the steps below:

  1. Define the Role and Responsibilities
    Have a clear idea of the role and responsibilities, so you can communicate them effectively.
  2. The Pitch
    Be prepared to introduce your project with excitement and explain how a sponsor’s support benefits them, too.
  3. Discuss Bandwidth and Expected Participation
    Have a clear idea of how much support the project will require from the project sponsor.
  4. Discuss How Their Contribution Will Be Critical for the Project’s Success
    Identify areas of the project that might need more support, and be prepared to discuss what that support will look like.
  5. Establish Communication Expectations and a Regular Meeting Schedule
    Think about the ideal amount of communication between a project sponsor and the project team, and then outline an example of a meeting schedule to share.

What Makes a Good Project Sponsor?

A good project sponsor is accountable, holds authority within the organization, and can influence the project's success. They serve as leaders and enthusiastic advocates, encouraging the project team and sharing progress and achievements with the project board. 

According to Dolfing, a great executive sponsor is an active sponsor. He shares the following eight guiding principles for a successful project sponsor: 

  1. Remember — You’re Not Accountable for Bringing in the Project on Time and Budget: That’s the project manager’s job. As the project sponsor, you’re accountable for delivering the business outcomes, benefits, and net value.
  2. Project Outcomes Are Not Business Outcomes: A project may deliver a system, but a system on its own doesn’t equal business value. The business wants to use the system to improve its business, compete, and make money. This is a different outcome, one that delivers real business value. Look at what your project investment will deliver — is it a project outcome that the business hopes will work or a business outcome that will deliver real, measurable business value?
  3. Your Project Is Set Up to Implement Change, Whereas the Business Is Set Up Not to Change: For the project to be successful, it must interrupt business as usual and deliver a valuable change. In order to achieve this, a project requires the help, support, and authority of you and your steering committee. No business change equals no business benefits, which means you’ve failed as project sponsor.
  4. Who You Have on Your Project Team Determines the Outcomes and Results: Two project teams given the same problem will produce two different solutions. Choose your project team wisely and well. It is worth putting significant time into the project resourcing step, especially choosing your project manager.
  5. You Can’t Focus on Everything, so You Should Focus on Three Things in Particular:
    • The Project Risks, Assumptions, Issues, and Decisions (RAID) Lists: Issues that remain unresolved before implementation present an unknown, unplanned workload and cost. If the issue log explodes, your project timeline and budget likely will, too. And risks are the threats to the project and its successful delivery. A series of new risks late in the project can threaten the viability of the entire project.
    • The Critical Path (or Chain): How you track this path will determine your likelihood of an on-time and on-budget delivery.
    • Your Project’s Value: Value creep occurs when the benefits of a project progressively decrease while the costs increase. The result is a net reduction in project value, which often moves the project from positive to negative returns.
  6. Be Present: Visit the project team at least once a month, as well as the business areas impacted by your project. What do they think about the project? Visit your key stakeholders regularly, and assess whether they are still supportive. You need to be seen to be leading, committed, and involved. If you are losing business support, you should be the first to know, so you can take action before it is too late.
  7. Learn to Do Your Job as a Sponsor: Project sponsorship is not intuitive or a natural extension of line or operational management. It is a different set of skills and knowledge base that have to be learned. In the same way that you wouldn’t want amateurs working on your project, don’t impose one at the top.
  8. Watch for Signs of Trouble — the Little Changes That Sneak Up on You: These indicators include unplanned employee turnover that results in a loss of cumulative project knowledge, cumulative scope changes that redirect the whole project, and poor-quality outputs. With your broader perspective, you need to review these leading indicators of project failure.

10 Attributes of a Good Project Sponsor Checklist

Here are 10 attributes you should look for in a good project sponsor:

  • Participates: The project sponsor actively involves themselves in project planning and visualization.
  • Budgets: The project sponsor reviews and approves staffing and spending. 
  • Reviews: The project sponsor examines and approves changes to the project plan. 
  • Solves Problems: The project sponsor helps resolve issues and obstacles.
  • Supports: The project sponsor works with and advises the project manager.
  • Guides: The project sponsor provides advice and suggestions and makes decisions.
  • Communicates: The project sponsor encourages effective communication strategies. 
  • Mediates: The project sponsor serves as an intermediary between the project team and decision-making groups. 
  • Celebrates: The project sponsor honors the success and completion of milestones.
  • Evaluates: The project sponsor assesses the project’s successes and failures upon completion.

Download 10 Attributes of a Good Project Sponsor Checklist — Adobe PDF

Why Is It Critical to Keep the Project Sponsor Informed?

A well-informed project sponsor can better support the project manager by assisting with cross-department communication. Keep the project sponsor well informed so that they can champion the project and uphold realistic expectations among management, stakeholders, and clients.

What Should I Ask a Project Sponsor?

Clarity and communication are essential for the project’s success. Prepare a list of questions to ask the project sponsor to help establish a mutual understanding of responsibilities, such as the following:

  1. What is your role in this project?
  2. What is the purpose of this project?
  3. What are the priorities of this project?
  4. What kind of resistance or challenges do you anticipate with this project?
  5. How would you like issues to be escalated?
  6. When are you available?
  7. How often would you like to hear from the project manager?
  8. Do you understand the project plan?
  9. Are there any other projects dependent on this project?
  10. What are your thoughts about the schedule and cost?
  11. How will you evaluate the end product or deliverables?
  12. Do you have specific performance requirements?
  13. Are there any regulations or policies we should be aware of?

How to Deal with a Challenging Project Sponsor

The project sponsor may not always function as expected, so it’s important to “understand that they are human too,” says Dolfing. “Accept that humans do not always behave in a rational, reasonable, consistent, or predictable way, and operate with an awareness of human feelings and potential personal agendas. By understanding the root cause of the sponsor’s behavior, you can assess if there is a better way to work together to maintain a productive relationship.” 

Here are some types of issues you may encounter and tips for dealing with them:

Potential Sponsor Issue Steps to Remedy the Issue
Absentee or Unapproachable Sponsor
  • Set meetings at regular intervals.
  • Emphasize the sponsor’s importance for risk management, decision making, and reputation.
  • Note that the sponsor is just as responsible as the team for project success.
Indecisive Sponsor
  • Limit options.
  • Discuss risks.
  • Provide decision-making support.
Overinvolved or Micromanaging Sponsor
  • Explain the areas of the project in which their advice will be most beneficial.
  • Discuss their level of control and why it is needed.
  • Engage them and ask for their advice.
Unresourceful Sponsor
  • Help them help you.
  • Be clear about what you need.
  • Ask for permission to act on their behalf.
Critical Sponsor
  • Welcome feedback and critique.
  • Ask questions.
  • Look to higher-ups and discuss your shared goal of making the boss happy.


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