I was lucky enough to be invited to lead a workshop on project management tips and techniques with a long-time Abila partner, Rebecca Achurch, at last month’s Code(Her) Conference in D.C. One of the more pivotal pieces we covered was the importance of setting up a project for success from the start (i.e., how to set expectations and build trust).

For me, kicking off a tech project with a solid project charter is critical to success. While you may be tempted to speed through this process, taking the time to get everyone aligned on the details will help you navigate the project through all decisions and milestones.

What is a Project Charter?

The project charter, or as we like to call it, the holy grail for IT project success, is the true foundation of the project. It outlines what needs to be accomplished, who will be involved, and how the group plans to realize the project goals.

Elements of a project charter include:

  • Roles and Responsibilities
  • Scope and Requirements
  • Confirmed Budget
  • Communication Plan
  • Stakeholders
  • Risk Register
  • Anything else that is critical to ensure all parties agree on what a successful project looks like

Why is the Project Charter So Important?

Even with skilled project managers at the helm, many completed projects don’t meet the typical success metrics as you can see in the below chart from a 2013 report conducted by the Project Management Institute.


Without all stakeholders agreeing on defined success metrics, a successful project outcome is unlikely. The project charter clearly states what success looks like for a project (meeting project goals, on time, and within budget and scope). Since there is a common understanding of the project objectives (what is in and out of scope),a well-made project charter can also reduce the potential for a project to grow out of control.

Okay … I’m Starting to Buy into This, So How do I Get Started?

The RFP (request for proposal) might be a good starting point, but in many instances RFPs can get lengthy and redundant. It’s best to bring it back to the bare necessities when outlining your project charter. After you have collected information from the RFP/contract, schedule one-on-one stakeholder conversations to get a better idea of expectations.

Here are some suggestions when collecting information to bring it back to the bare necessities:

Why are we doing this? This is NOT the technical goal, but the business goal. How will this project help your organization better meet its mission and serve its members? What is the end benefit for your staff and members?

What are the expectations? This includes the functionality (scope) of what the project needs to deliver and the timeline in which it’s to completed. Depending on the project methodology there might be multiple phases for the timeline.

What is the priority? The REAL must-haves. This will help decision making as the project gets under way, if certain functionality has to be prioritized to complete the project in budget and on time.  

Who am I working with? The technical team that will be working on the project, including all third party vendors, as well as any stakeholders who will have decision-making power during the project.

Who matters?  It’s important to clearly define all decision makers and what’s most important to each of them. This also includes working out an escalation path if issues arise.

Now that you have all the necessary information collected, use kick-off meetings to align expectations on the project, scope, communication patterns, roles, and responsibilities. There are many project charter templates out there. It doesn’t matter which way you organize the information as all of the necessary details are included and all stakeholders agree to them. Once everyone has signed off on the project charter, don’t just leave it under a stack of papers on your desk. Continually refer back to it as you check-in on the progress of the project, so there are no surprises when you’re nearing completion.

You can download our full presentation from the Code(Her) conference here. If you are not quite at the project kick-off phase and just starting to look into a potential AMS or LMS refresh, check out our unbiased guide to association software.