Define Your Project Charter

You wouldn’t start a renovation without a contract that tells the builder precisely what improvements you were doing. You might be hoping for a bathroom renovation, and they might feel that your kitchen needs a make-over. Without the contract, the instructions to “improve my house” could take on a million different looks.

Sadly, most projects start without a ‘contract’ that defines some necessary information about the project. Without up-front definition, the project can often flounder because people are unclear on who is responsible, the pieces of work, and who will be doing the specific sections of work.

Charter is not a word that most people use every day. One dictionary definition of a charter is “a document, issued by a sovereign or state, outlining the conditions under which a corporation, colony, city, or other corporate body is organized, and defining its rights and privileges.”[1] Let’s break down how this definition fits what a project charter is. A charter is:

A Document

A project charter must be documented. While you might do this in a video, audio broadcast, or some other method, most likely you are writing this down in a physical document. As much as you might try to avoid the work of more documentation, the time spent making a charter extremely valuable. As in our contractor example, the charter is your contract with your boss, customer, or other stakeholders. A handshake contract is acceptable for a small task, but not for the more substantial change that your project will bring.

Issued By Someone Responsible

A project charter will include the name of the sponsor. The sponsor is the person who is requesting this project and is ultimately accountable for the success or failure of this project. If you want to know who should be the project sponsor, look for the most senior person in the organization who could be promoted or commended if this project is successful. The project sponsor is the person who will make major decisions about the project. (What colour is the carpet, whether we replace the accounting system or the HRIS, what country we move into next.) But they generally don’t want to concern themselves with the low-level details. The project sponsor is also the person who will approve the funding for the project. When thinking of the project sponsor, you can consider them to be the queen or king of the project. They have ultimate authority over the project, they are funding it, and it is your job to make sure that the queen or king is in a better place than when they started once the project is done.

The project sponsor is the person who will cast the vision for the project. They will give you a clear picture of where you want to go. As the project manager, you will be responsible for making it happen.

Outlining the Conditions of The Project

The project charter can be very long or short. The Treasury Board of Canada has a project charter guide that is 28 pages long [2] (and that is just the guide.) You could also have a one-page project charter [3] (even though this template is 4 pages.) There are a few essential elements that must be included in your project charter. These are:

  1. The name of the project sponsor. Name the person who will be held accountable for the work being done correctly and on time. (The most senior person who gets promoted or demoted because of this work.)
  2. The name of the project manager. The project manager is the person who is responsible for organizing the work.
  3. Any other significant stakeholders. The project sponsor might be the VP of HR, but the Director of HR and payroll staff are stakeholders that will need to be involved in the project.
  4. A schedule of milestones. A milestone schedule isn’t a work schedule, it is a list of the results, and when they will be produced by.
  5. Details about what problem is being solved, and what problems won’t be solved. These details are referred to as what is in scope, and out of scope.
  6. A list of risks, and how you will make sure that nothing terrible happens to the project.
  7. A plan for how you will communicate about the project. Who wants to be part of the steering committee meetings? How does the sponsor want to learn about progress? When do we tell the rest of the organization?

Approval To Move Forward

Before you begin your project, be sure to talk through your project charter with everyone involved. Your project sponsor must approve the charter – this is their way of signing the contract to say that the work may begin. More importantly, the conversations around the charter will often identify some differences in understanding amongst participants. The project sponsor may have a vision of good user experience, and a mid-level manager may feel that efficiency is more important. Understanding what the renovation will involve will help with communication about the results of the project. Discussions about the project charter will open conversations about the scope, timing, budget, responsibility, and additional resource needs. The charter discussions can be very clarifying.

Before moving forward, your project sponsor must agree to the project that is being undertaken, and the change that will be made. Some organizations have a formal sign-off process, but at very least, you must make sure that you have received the nod from the sponsor in a way that fits the project and organization.

And After The Charter?

The project charter is only the first step in your project journey. Now that you have the approval to start the project, an agreement on the vision of the project, you will need to organize the people, time, money, and resources to accomplish the work. You will make sure that you achieve the right level of quality and the right level of return on investment.

Each part of the project charter might require further thought and analysis. For example, you might want to create a more detailed communication plan that tells you when, how, to whom, and why you are communicating with each group.

With the project charter signed, you have the authorization to begin working on the change that you are making in the world. Now you can get down to work to make that change.


[1] (n.d.). Definition of charter | [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Jun. 2019].

[2] Project Charter Guide. (2008). Project Charter Guide. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Jun. 2019].

[3] PROJECT CHARTER (SINGLE PAGE VERSION) TEMPLATE. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Jun. 2019].