The Role and Purpose of a Project Charter

Person reading a document
What's in your Project Charter?. Sam Edwards/Caiaimage/Getty Images

Projects exist formally in an organization because of the Project Charter. It’s a document that authorizes the work to take place and appoints the project manager. It gives you, as project manager, the mandate to do the work described in it.

The most important role of a Project Charter is to set out exactly what the project will achieve. Let’s look at what’s in this essential project document.

What Goes Into A Project Charter?

The first section of a Project Charter will spell out the name of the project, the names of the sponsor and project manager and the date the document was prepared.

Then you get into the meat of the document.

The main sections of a Project Charter are as follows.

Project Purpose: This explains why the project is wanted. You can refer to a business case or the contract that is driving this project or simply spell out why it’s important to do this piece of work.

Project Description: Explain in this section what the project is going to achieve. You should include details on the items that are going to be built or the services that are going to be delivered.

Budget: At this point you might not have all the details about the project tasks, so you can’t put a full and detailed project budget together. Note down any budget constraints or the high level initial range of expenditure that you expect.

Risks: All projects have risks. This section of the Project Charter forms the early version of your project risk log. Document any risks that you know about at this point so that the management team can see what might affect the project going forward.

Milestones: If you know the high level milestones, include them in the Project Charter in this section. You can transfer them to your Gantt chart later when you come to put together a more detailed plan. At the moment you’re just looking for drop dead dates or anything specified in the contracts you are working to.

Project Objectives: This is a really important section but it can be hard to put together. You are trying to answer the question: “How will we know when we’ve finished?” Write down what you expect the project to deliver and how you will know if you’ve got there. For example, in a project to launch a time recording system for all departments, the objective could be: “All teams will be using the timesheet system by the end of the year.” Also make a note of who is going to be responsible for agreeing that you have reached this objective. This avoids any problems at the end of the project where suddenly no one is prepared to sign the work off as complete.

Project Manager Authority Levels: Unless it’s really clear and documented somewhere else, it’s worth including a section in the Charter about what you are able to do without getting further sign off from someone more senior. This generally relates to what tolerance levels have been set on the budget and timescales and would be expressed like this: “Project manager has a 10% tolerance on budget and a 5% tolerance on schedule. Any deviation above these approved limits must be signed off by the project sponsor.” You can extend this section to specify what, if any, authority the project manager has about hiring and firing staff from the project team.

Approving the Project Charter

The final section of the Project Charter is the approvals section. The project manager and project sponsor (or the person who kicked off the work, if a longer term sponsor has yet to be appointed) should sign and date the document. Today, that’s likely to be via email so keep a copy of the email authorization in your project files in case you need to refer back to it.