How to Write a Project Charter: Template & Examples
As a project manager, you’re used to sifting through project paperwork. But it’s not always easy for your team and stakeholders to make sense of it all when they’ve got limited time to spend on the details.
That’s where a project charter comes in.
A project charter acts as a reference guide for successful project delivery so you can get everyone up to speed and on board with the project more quickly.
Let’s take a closer look at what a project charter is, why it’s important, and how to create one for your projects.
What is a project charter, and why is it important?
A project charter is a document that details your project’s goals, benefits, constraints, risks, stakeholders, and even budgets. It may also be referred to as a project brief or project definition document.
The Project Management Institute (PMI) defines a project charter as “a document issued by the project initiator or sponsor that formally authorizes the existence of a project, and provides the project manager with the authority to apply organizational resources to project activities.”
The purpose of a project charter is to set clear project expectations so you can lead even the largest teams and complex projects to an on-time and under-budget delivery. A project charter also brings benefits like aligning stakeholders and teams to the project’s objectives and clarifying important details that could impact the project.
Project charter vs. project plan: What’s the difference?
Having multiple documents related to your project might sound overwhelming—and it can be! But, every key document plays an important role in project success.
So when should you use a project charter versus a project plan? The simple answer is you should always use both to manage your projects. But let’s take a quick look at the difference between a project charter and a project plan.
Think of your project charter as the document that explains the what and why of your project, while your project plan outlines the how, when, and who.
Remember, the purpose of the project charter is to detail your project in its entirety—but at a high level. We’re not talking about tasks and milestones here.
A project charter spells out the details needed to understand a project and its objectives, usually in Word, Excel, Google Docs, or PDF format. It’s delivered early in the project cycle to ensure everyone’s on the same page about goals and deliverables.
A project plan, on the other hand, is a line-by-line action plan for leading a project to completion once all the details have been approved. It’s typically formatted as a gantt chart with task deadlines and milestones mapped out on a timeline so you can track progress along the way.
How to write a project charter
Ready to develop a project charter framework for your organization?
To create a project charter for your next project, your first step should be to discuss the project with your team and stakeholders. This will enable you to gather the information needed to execute the project, while also setting expectations around what it will take to get the job done.
Be sure this initial discussion covers the following project details:
- Constraints (including deadlines and budgets)
- Any other details that will help you truly define your project
Gaining this level of insight and understanding from your team and stakeholders early on will go a long way in helping you maintain alignment throughout the project.
Just like everything else in project management, there’s no single way to write a project charter. The most important thing to remember when creating your charter is to make it easy to read and accessible to anyone involved in your project.
Remember, the charter should be a high-level review of the project, not a turn-by-turn accounting of what will happen. Feel free to use short descriptions—or even bullet points—to help you keep it brief.
Project charter elements & examples
A lot of information goes into a project charter, and it’s up to you to determine which components make sense for the teams and organizations you work with. Here’s a list of key elements you may want to include when writing your project charter.
This is a goals-related statement that explains the purpose of your project and why you’re taking it on. The business case not only helps guide project decisions, but also ensures everyone involved in the project is aligned on its purpose. That way you can all hold each other accountable to sticking to that goal.
We wrote this business case statement example for a website redesign project:
The Gantt Museum website (ganttmuseum.org) must be redesigned to help us meet our new, aggressive ticket sales goals and to provide a new online shop experience for visitors who cannot visit in person.
While the business case may state your overarching goals, you might find you need to get more specific about practical goals for your project.
Writing SMART goals for your project’s initiatives can make it easier to stay on task. This example gives you an idea of how you could work these into your project charter goals:
- Provide an updated look and feel to align with new branding.
- Showcase relevant visitor information in an easy-to-access way.
- Include an online ticketing system to allow visitors to buy tickets around the clock from any location. This new system must contribute an additional 20% in ticketing revenue for the Museum.
- Leverage an off-the-shelf e-commerce platform to be managed by the Museum shop personnel. This new system must contribute an additional 35% in shop revenue for the Museum.
This section may be optional for you, depending on where you work and the type of project you’re running. But if you deal with project budgets or clients, be crystal-clear about the project’s cost and how it’s broken down. Keeping this information transparent will help guide conversations if and when your budget approaches its max.
In the project charter example below, we’ve broken the budget down by project phase:
$500,000, broken down by phase:
- Research: $50,000
- Design: $200,000
- Development: $250,000
Scope and deliverables
Be sure to define the thing you’ll deliver and the scope associated with it so you can set clear expectations about what will and won’t be included—or executed on—in your project.
Here’s an example of how you might outline a project's scope and deliverables in your project charter:
We’re redesigning and building the following templates:
- Home page
- Ticketing page
- Shop home page
- Shop item description page
- Wireframes for each page (to be revised up to 3 times)
- Page designs (to be revised up to 3 times)
- Coded templates
In this section, you’ll list any people, funds, time, materials, equipment, or additional resources you or the team will need to complete the project. Here’s a sample of resources a website design project might require:
- Branding work is being done by our partner agency. All files will be required before design kickoff.
- All photography for the site will be FPO in design. New photography may be required.
- Museum will purchase licenses for fonts.
- Museum will need to purchase CMS licenses for staff.
- Museum will need to hire a CMS trainer and content entry staff.
Don’t worry about fitting a whole plan into your project charter. But it’s a good idea to list out key project milestones with dates and reference your plan in TeamGantt by sharing a view-only link to your gantt chart.
For example, you might structure your project charter milestone schedule like this:
This project is estimated to take 9 months with the following milestone schedule:
- October 31, 2021 - Kickoff
- December 15, 2021 - Research Complete
- February 28, 2022 - Design Complete
- April 15, 2022 - Development & CMS Training Complete
- May 21, 2022 - Content Entry Complete
- June 30, 2022 - QA Testing Complete, Launch
Risks and issues
Every project carries risk, whether it’s the threat of a critical stakeholder leaving the project, a much-needed asset missing a deadline, or even a hurricane taking out your internet and bringing work to a halt.
Documenting things that could go wrong in your project charter—like we’ve done in the example below—makes everyone aware of risks from the outset:
- The stakeholder team has never been part of a website redesign.
- Most of the content will need to be rewritten, and the effort is unknown.
- The funding for the e-commerce platform has not yet been approved.
Sometimes one piece of a project can’t start until a previous step is complete. And when a partner’s responsible for that step, you have no control. If that’s the case for your project, you’ve got a rolling list of risks on your hands.
Make note of any major dependencies in your project charter so you can spotlight potential scheduling issues. Here’s how that might look:
- If the branding project is not approved on time, it will delay our project.
- The selection of the Content Management System (CMS) and subsequent licensing is required before development begins.
If you’re working on a project with a team of folks who are responsible for approving your project, you want to be sure they’re present and accounted for. Listing them here will help!
While you’re at it, you might want to define their roles or at least mention who the “lead” or main approver will be.
This sample project charter keeps the stakeholder list simple:
- Project sponsor & key point of contact: Sandy Sanderson, EVP, Marketing
- Don Limon, Director of IT
- Donna Sumner, Director of Ticketing
- Bob Burg, Manager, Museum Shop
- Danielle Della, Senior Writer
Download a free project charter template
Making a project charter may feel like a daunting task, but it really doesn’t have to be. Using a template can help you jump right in and keep things brief so your project charter is quick to create and scan.
Download our free project charter template (Word) and use the examples above to write a project charter of your own. Feel free to adapt this template to your style or organization’s needs.
Remember, a well-written project charter can help you answer and document big project questions and quickly align your team and stakeholders. It’s a small document with a huge purpose, so your best approach is to develop a simple project charter that’s easy to read and useful for everyone involved.
Go from project charter to plan with TeamGantt
Once you’ve got a solid project charter in hand, it’s time to craft your plan! With TeamGantt, you can create an interactive project plan without the tedium.
You’ll have all the features you need to ensure projects finish on time and on budget, including:
- Drag and drop simplicity
- Easy team collaboration
- Gantt chart, list, calendar, and board views
- Team availability & workload management
- Planned timeline vs. actual timeline
- Dedicated mobile app
And it all comes with a simple and intuitive interface that’s easy for anyone to use.