Essential Elements: The Project Sponsor - Heller Consulting

Essential Elements: The Project Sponsor

In any successful technology implementation, there is an engaged and active project sponsor. This is the person who is the driving force behind the initiative, leading, sustaining, cajoling, and sometimes dragging the organization through an often challenging process. Depending on the organization culture, they can be the technical lead who is respected for their deep system knowledge, or they can be the relationship wrangler, the person who can easily speak with every team member and department. Regardless of their skills, an effective sponsor, or often a sponsorship team, is someone who is trusted and respected.

It’s also important for sponsors to have a level of official authority in the organization. The most effective are at the same level (or higher) of the most senior staff affected by the initiative. This is especially true in projects that span across multiple business units. In these cases, a coordinated sponsorship team including executive leadership and department heads is essential to show that the organization is moving forward together with the same end goal to benefit their mission. On many of our projects, large and small, we have found that a sponsorship team approach is very effective at eliminating many territorial and political barriers that can often arise during transitions. This is echoed by recommendations made by change management professionals at Prosci, an organization that researches change management strategies. The more senior staff that visibly support an initiative, the more united and supportive the rest of the team will feel. A team of sponsors composed of engaged stakeholders and accessible managers provides staff with an open channel for feedback, direct participation opportunities, and a connection through their leadership to executive sponsors. In all of our projects, clear communication up and down the chain of command minimizes or removes many of the obstacles to an initiative’s success.

Sponsorship In Action

An example of exceptional sponsorship from our experience was on a recent project with a large healthcare provider. They were transitioning their entire organization from The Raiser’s Edge to roundCorner’s NGO Connect. More than a dozen discrete systems were being consolidated into one Salesforce-based environment, and over 20 different affiliates would be involved and impacted by the change. From the beginning, it was clear to all this was a complex project that would impact the organization for a very long time. It had to be planned in detail around multiple schedules, timelines, and across multiple business units at the organization.

To ensure a successful transition to the new system, Heller and the project team knew that it was essential to create processes to eliminate risks wherever possible. It was also important to define what constituted a “successful” transition. Clearly, success would include the technical implementation of the system, but it was just as important for the staff to adopt and utilize the new system. To achieve this, the entire staff needed to understand and support what was sure to be a long and sometimes challenging process.

Early on, the organization established a sponsorship group based on the input of a wide range of managers and stakeholders. Members were selected from across affiliates, tasked with representing their own department’s interests as they collaborated closely with executive leadership. By working together, the group was able to develop a structure for the governance and overall management of the project. They also established a communication strategy to keep everyone informed and motivated throughout the victories and challenges experienced during the 2.5 years of the project.

How Sponsors Influenced The Project

Establishing a sponsorship group was important. It made sure that all departments and business units had a voice in the changes that were going to touch every aspect of the way the organization operated. When inevitable unplanned challenges arose, they were able to quickly balance the options and determine the most effective solutions.

The sponsorship group established a clear and relevant communication plan that was consistently utilized to keep the team informed of current efforts, expectations, and next steps. When each milestone of the project was reached, the whole organization celebrated as a team, even if a phase was focused within a different business unit. The challenges of the project were used to unify the organization toward a common goal.


For the complex project above and the many others of all sizes that we have completed through the years, establishing a clear plan supported by effective sponsors has proven to greatly influence the success of the project. Technology challenges can certainly be barriers at times, but with a united team that supports the end goals of the project and understands the path to achieve them, any obstacle can be overcome.