The danger of the Sponsor

The term “Sponsor” is used in many approaches to Project Management, Programme Management and Change Management. Not just in the theoretical approaches describing Best Practices or Common Practices, but also in real life a Sponsor is often mentioned as a key role.

This is a destructive practice. A Sponsor is a dangerous role; the term should not be used anymore. Sponsors are main threats to any form of change.

Sponsor: To support a person, organization, or activity by giving money, encouragement, or other help

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary & Thesaurus © Cambridge University Press


The definition indicates a passive role; a Sponsor will not take accountability. If there is no proper accountability from the top of a change initiative, there is a very probable risk the change will fail. Using the term Sponsor will therefor seriously endanger the chances of successful projects and programmes and this is not just a semantic discussion.

A football team will have a shirt sponsor. Does that mean they will do what the sponsor want? Does that mean the sponsor will feel accountable or even responsible when the team does not meet the goals or expectations? Obviously not.

The same behaviour will most likely be observed if a change initiative will have a sponsor.

In the practices of Project Management there are basically two views:

  • The Supplier/Delivery-Only approach (e.g. PMI/IPMA)
  • The Customer/Business Case view (e.g. PRINCE2)

Delivery-only approaches

In the supplier approaches the term “Sponsor” is commonly used. But also, in these approaches the importance of clear roles and responsibilities is more or less ignored. That makes perfect sense because suppliers are usually focussed on doing their work as good as possible and tend to ignore external influences, as long as their assignments are clear.

Suppliers in projects often see their customer as a sponsor; someone who provide them with a budget and just sits on a fence. Usually this will cause significant issues. When not properly involved, users and their management (the Sponsor) will be disappointed by the delivered quality and the high costs associated. Usually the assignment was less clear than first assessed or the lack of a clear assignment was accepted or even ignored because it seemed to be important to show activity.

Business Case approaches

Customer approaches to project management focus on the long-term effects as described in a Business Case. This could well be the reason for PRINCE2 using the term “Executive” rather than “Sponsor”. In the views of PRINCE2, the Executive is the owner of the Business Case and ultimately accountable for the project.

The role of Executive is extremely important for well-executed projects but because of common practices (rather than best practices) the role is often not properly filled in.

MSP – Programme Management

The PRINCE2 term “Executive” may also be too vague and not give a clear indication of what is expected. In the MSP approach (Managing Successful Programmes), a similar but probably more high-level role is called the SRO: Senior Responsible Owner. In many ways this name reflects far better what is expected: responsibility and ownership. Possibly the term “responsible” could be replaced by the far stronger “accountable”, but the meaning is clearer than the role “Executive” and is certainly preferable to the term “Sponsor”.

A SRO is supported by a Sponsoring Group. The way MSP sees the Sponsoring Group reflects what a sponsor is really about. The MSP Sponsoring Group does not really have an active role in the programme. Their members are really only supporting and sponsoring (although obviously in the background there will be accountability). But basically the term "Sponsoring Group" indicates quite clearly what their role is about.

No more Sponsors. More Owners, please

Executive leadership and ownership are extremely important in projects, programmes and other change initiatives. For far more than only semantic reasons, the term “Sponsor” should not be used anymore. The term indicates a passive, not involved stakeholder. Using the term “Sponsor” creates large risks, right from the start.

More emphasis should be placed on accountability and active ownership.

About the author

Specialist in effective change.

Accredited MSP™ and PRINCE2® trainer.

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