Over the past decade or so, the role of the executive sponsor has become well accepted in a wide range of for-profit and nonprofit organizations. In fact, most of the literature about project and change management suggests that having a C-level sponsor is a key requirement for success, because the sponsor:
In contrast with the role of the project manager, who focuses mainly on day-to-day execution, an executive sponsor’s responsibilities are more strategic, focusing on creating conditions for success instead of tactical implementation. The role of the executive sponsor consists of three main responsibilities: project governance, preparing the organization for a successful transformation, and ensuring that the change project achieves its transformational and operational goals.
According to the Project Management Institute’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Sixth Edition, project governance is an “oversight function that is aligned with the organization’s governance model and encompasses the project life cycle.” For nonprofits, the process includes engaging with stakeholders, defining accountability and responsibilities, ongoing communication, and other essential components.
Serving as an effective sponsor can be worthwhile for the organization’s senior executives, as they get to oversee key initiatives, whether they face outward to members, donors, or other stakeholders, or address critical internal needs. In contrast, if a senior executive neglects their project sponsor responsibilities, isn’t clear about their responsibilities, or is actively causing dysfunction among the project team, project failure can be the result.
Some project sponsor responsibilities can be as simple as sending out emails to officially launch the project and introduce the team. But truly effective sponsors also take on much more strategic tasks, such as building coalitions to mobilize and align key organization leaders and stakeholders, facilitating communication, and breaking down institutional silos. These project sponsor responsibilities can include:
In short, the executive sponsor needs to take a lead role in building and maintaining a healthy coalition of leaders who support the change. The sponsor must mobilize other key organization leaders and stakeholders, so that they in turn can advocate for the change and legitimize it throughout the organization in general, and in particular to their department or other area of responsibility. A healthy sponsorship coalition is especially important for changes that stretch across multiple locations and functions within the organization, ensuring that goals don’t become misaligned between departments and within the organization in general.
Strategically, effective change leadership spearheaded by the executive sponsor involves establishing and coordinating the roles and decision-making processes of the various players involved. Other key responsibilities of the sponsor are ensuring that the project is executed with high transparency and accountability, that the interests of relevant stakeholders are represented, and that these stakeholders are kept adequately informed of project progress and consulted as necessary. To cite one obvious example, if an organization is moving to a new online payment system, the executive sponsor must provide timely updates to all parties affected — from development, to meetings, to publications.
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Regardless of the size or scope of an organization or its planned transformational initiative, an effective executive sponsor should possess six general characteristics:
Strong communication skills Executive sponsors must have a clear understanding of the organization’s goals and how the project impacts those goals. They must be able to articulate to the team, as well as both internal and external stakeholders, why the project is important and the risks associated with maintaining the status quo. For example, instead of merely saying that a new CRM is needed, a sponsor could point out ways the new system will help maximize engagement with volunteers, donors, event participants, and other community members, furthering the organization’s mission and goals. An essential part of the sponsor’s role is to convey an aspirational perspective, with relevant examples for each type of stakeholder.
Positive leadership Effective executive sponsors are able to see the big picture and identify specific areas that may pose a challenge or require additional focus. A good executive sponsor leads by example and keeps the team motivated and moving forward.
Credibility A sponsor with credibility is highly respected by the team, colleagues, and others inside and outside the organization. This kind of sponsor can influence and communicate broadly across the organization and is trusted by both external constituencies and internal staff.
Accountability A well-suited executive sponsor is willing to take ownership of their change project team, champion its purpose, and defend its actions. In many cases, this can mean recognizing and rewarding behaviors and actions that move the project forward, serving as a positive example. In other instances, it could mean calling attention to individuals’ actions that are hindering the project. In the most extreme situations, a sponsor might have to provide corrective measures to a team member, or even replace them.
Risk management Every worthwhile change project involves some level of risk. An effective sponsor accepts this reality, and helps to identify and mitigate risks. This might seem self-evident, but we have actually worked with sponsors who would not even discuss the possibility of risk. This discouraged employees from bringing up concerns, which eventually led to problems that could have been avoided if the team had openly talked about risks and made plans accordingly.
Deep listening skills A truly effective sponsor spends as much time, or more, listening to their team as they do talking to them. “Deep listening” refers to intensive listening to a wide range of sources, and provides the executive sponsor with a better, more comprehensive understanding of a situation. This helps ensure that all who are affected by an organization’s change process are heard and feel involved and respected. (For more information on this topic, see our article on deep listening.)
An effective executive sponsor must be involved in every stage of the project — from conception through implementation, launch, and beyond. They need to understand both the project management and change management processes, as well as the impact that the broader initiative will have on the organization. They also need to understand how to use the two processes tactically to move the project forward, and how to leverage the strengths of their existing team in doing so. Having this knowledge makes it easier to embrace, communicate, promote, and champion transformation. This means more than just being visible and active. It means wholeheartedly embracing the project and all its ramifications to ensure success.