5 Elements of an Effective Project Charter

The drafting of a project charter is the unofficial beginning to a project within an organization. It’s usually drafted by the prospective project manager and used not only to gain the approval of a given project, but also as the project’s guiding document throughout its life cycle.

In a nutshell, the project charter should accomplish a few basic things. It should identify who’ll be the project manager and who the project members will be, including roles and responsibilities. The charter should also define the scope of work, as well as all objectives and key performance indicators (KPIs) the project’s success will be measured by.

Good project charters will answer the following questions:

  • Why do we want to start this project?
  • What are we trying to accomplish, and what constraints do we have?
  • What, exactly, will we do during the project timeline?
  • What’s our budget?
  • Who’s in charge?
  • What benefits will we gain from accomplishing our goals?
  • What detriments are there if we never start?

What makes a project charter so important is its role in orienting a project team towards a distinct company vision. It sets priorities, describes a clear authority structure, keeps project members aware of what needs to be done, and what the benefits are to gain.

Project charters will differ between organizations, but all effective charters have key elements that make them useful tools for project management, and not just as a “check the box” activity for the project manager.

5 Elements of an Effective Project Charter

1.  Clearly Defined Scope

Poorly defined scopes of work are frequent causes of project management headaches. Whether the scope starts too big and needs trimming, starts too small and grows faster than anticipated, or completely misidentifies the requirements, the scope can drag a project down from the start.

Ensuring the charter has a very clear scope with few open-ended specifications or gray areas will prevent these types of headaches from happening. To verify if scope is properly defined, see if all members of the program can communicate the scope to other members of your organization.

2.  Roles & Responsibilities

This may seem like a no-brainer, but in a world where management structures are trending more horizontal than vertical, it’s not always easy to define roles and responsibilities on projects. It’s extremely important to make sure that leadership, who must sign off on the project resources, along with the members of the project know who’s responsible for what, who approvals must go through, and what the major deliverables are and their responsible parties.

3.  Connection to Company Objectives

Projects always run better when there’s a correlation with the overall company objective. Nobody involved with a project should be asking, “why are we doing this?” That goes for anyone in an organization familiar with the project as well. As a reference document, the project charter should serve as an antidote to the usual feeling some might have that they’re wasting their time.

Taking the time to tie the project goals in the charter back to your organization’s strategic vision makes the process of securing resources for the project much easier. Those in the position to give the green light to important projects spend a lot of time and energy positioning the organization for the future, so showing an understanding of that vision can reduce the time it takes to gain management buy-in on company projects.

4.  Definition of Success

The project charter must have an answer to the question, “what does success look like?” Accomplishing all project goals is a good start, but doesn’t fully encompass the measurables that prove the benefit the project sought to provide.

This is where good KPI development comes into play. If the project’s stated goal is to reduce inventory dock-to-stock times, it’s not enough to declare “mission accomplished” if the time is reduced. How much faster do the times have to be to designate the program a success? This is the KPI that should be defined in this circumstance.

5.  Understanding the Risks

Nobody enjoys talking about all the things that could go wrong in a given program. When a new project is drawn up, everyone is excited about the prospects of that project. After all, why would stakeholders invest so much time and energy into something they think will fail? On the other hand, an overly optimistic view could lead to overlooking certain risks or threats.

When seeking project approval, thoroughly identifying risks to project success might feel a bit like poisoning the well, but demonstrating such an understanding of the risks increases the strength of the project charter. If the project manager can identify the risks, it’s likely the project manager can plan to avoid or respond to them in the future. Clearly identifying the risks to success demonstrates a deep understanding of the problems the project seeks to solve and strengthens the trust in the project’s mission.


In the end, a project charter may seem like a low-impact activity, considering the more detailed project documents that are typically developed after project kickoff, but identifying the proper tools, refining timelines, budgets, and key milestones can’t start without a good project charter. A project can grow lost without its initial document. A concise project charter that addresses important cost, timing, and resources questions, while tying the major goals back to the organizational vision, will pay dividends for a successful project launch.