Project Terms of Reference (ToR) Template: Writing Tips

Project Terms of Reference (ToR) Template: Writing Tips
Project TOR template

Terms of Reference (ToR) provide a statement of the proposed project’s background, purpose, and objectives. A ToR template includes a range of criteria that are necessary for strategic project management decision-making. In addition, this document defines the activities, risks, budget, and expertise related to the project.

The following template provides an overview of the main sections of the Project Terms of Reference document. In this guide, I describe the definition and content of ToR. The template is available for free download as a .doc file.

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Terms Of Reference Template Free Download
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Terms of Reference: Definition and Purpose

In project management, the Terms of Reference is a strategy-level document that describes the expected deliverables, who is responsible for each deliverable, and the timeline in which they should be completed. The ToR states the planned activities, typical inputs and outputs, project budget, working schedules, and job descriptions. It is used to evaluate the performance of the project team, contractors, consultants, experts, and other project stakeholders.

The purpose of the ToR is to specify the amount and type of work to accomplish the project. In addition, it is a governance document that establishes and determines the relationships between all project stakeholders. The Terms of Reference document is developed once a project has been identified, defined, and planned.

The ToR of a project provides a clear description of the following critical information:

  • The rationale behind undertaking the project.
  • The proposed methodology of project management, along with work plans and activity schedules.
  • The expected resource requirements, primarily regarding personnel.
  • Reporting rules and requirements.

What’s Included in the ToR?

The development of Project Terms of Reference is required for making the decision on whether or not to allocate necessary funds to a proposed project. It is the result of the project proposal process, and TOR serves as the primary report of this process. TOR is usually required for:

  • Pre-feasibility and feasibility analyses
  • Appraisal activity
  • Implementation contracts designing and monitoring
  • Evaluation studies
  • Reporting and audit
  • Other advisory work required at any project stage

Considering the listed items, the content of Project Terms of Reference should include business-critical information necessary for starting, implementing and monitoring project activities. Meanwhile, the exact content of TOR varies from project to project and significantly depends upon the scope of a proposed project.

A generic content format of Project Terms of Reference is suggested below:

  • Project Background
  • Project Objectives
  • Issues to be explored and analyzed against certain criteria
  • Implementation Methodology to be applied
  • Expertise required
  • Reporting requirements
  • Work plan, including activity schedules

Please note these are the common sections of a TOR template. They can be changed or omitted, depending on the scope of a particular project. The following below description of the TOR sections is general and provided as an overview for guidance purposes. It means a particular project will require a deeper analysis of the content to be included in a TOR template. When you plan for your project, you must first analyze and define the work that needs to be contracted out, and then proceed with the development of Project Terms of Reference.

1. Background

The background of a project provides an overview of the history behind the project. It should clearly state why perform the project and refer to a programming context. The purpose is to provide the reader with a brief explanation of the need behind the project.

The Background section of a ToR template usually includes several paragraphs which address the following issues:

  • Describe the project in the context of a related business need
  • State the general role of stakeholders in doing project activities
  • Highlight a brief overview of the project to date

2. Objectives

The objectives of a project are those desired accomplishments that can be reasonably delivered upon project completion, with consumption of available resources and within an expected timeframe. They should clearly identify and define what is expected from the project and who the target audience is.

The Objectives section of a Terms of Reference template should describe desired achievements at different stages of project lifecycle. It should also state the primary objectives of the project, which must be achieved upon success project completion. Here’s an example of how it should look like.

Work Type/Project Stage

Generic Objective

– Project Completion To increase sales of product “A” by 15% over a 3-month period
– Feasibility study To provide decision makers with sufficient information necessary for acceptance or rejection of the proposed project
– Monitoring To provide decision makers with sufficient information necessary to make informed judgment regarding the performance of the project
– Audit To ensure the project remains relevant and reasonable in legal, economical and technical terms

3. Issues

Any project involves a number of issues and problematic areas that must be addressed in order for the project to be implemented smoothly. The issues are the points of discussion or dispute throughout the project lifecycle. They cover any concern, query, request for change, or anything else that requires a resolution during the project. Unresolved issues may cause project failure.

The Issues section of a TOR template should highlight key issues to be studied and disputed at every stage of the project lifecycle. Usually TOR includes a range of evaluation criteria to be used for issue analysis and solving. Here are generic issue evaluation criteria for most projects:

  • Efficiency – this criterion determines how well a given activity transforms available resources into desired outputs in terms of quantity, quality and time
  • Relevance – it  help analyze whether a given activity is being performed with the desired benefits
  • Effectiveness – it concerns how far the project’s outputs have been utilized and whether the project’s purpose has been realized
  • Impact – this measure helps figure out the extent to which the project’s benefits received by the target audience have an overall effect on larger numbers of people concerned
  • Sustainability – this criterion identifies whether the project’s positive outcomes will continue after funding ends.

4. Methodology

The implementation methodology of a project provides a set of broad principles and rules from which specific procedures will be derived in order to define how to carry out the project in a cost-effective way. It describes the main methods of project implementation.

The Methodology section of a Project Terms of Reference template should therefore include a description of the following items:

  • Key phases of the project implementation process
  • The required level of stakeholder involvement that ensures smooth implementation
  • The content and duration of project activities and tasks
  • The information collection tools to be used throughout the project for monitoring purposes
  • Data analysis rules

5. Expertise

The expertise needed for doing a project defines a set of professional requirements for the individuals and teams involved in project implementation. It will be the basis for team building, including training and skill assessment.

The Expertise section of a Project Terms of Reference template should identify the following:

  • The type of work involved in the project
  • The type of skills and abilities required to do project work
  • The exact number of individuals involved, including a description of their qualifications, experience, and other professional attributes
  • The period of engagement of each team member
  • A description of the duties and responsibility per teammate
  • The relationship between the team members, including leadership roles

6. Reporting

Reports provide valued information about project performance over a certain period. Reporting is a process that starts once a project is launched and continues until the project is completed and its product is handed over. Reporting requirements will define how to write and submit project reports and what information to include.

The Reporting Requirements section of a Terms of Reference template should clearly specify the requirements for the reporting process, and might include the details of:

  • Table of contents for project reports
  • Rules for composing annexes
  • Report templates
  • The language to be used in reports
  • Computer software programmes to be used
  • Submission dates
  • People responsible for reporting and approving
  • Other sufficient information, such as number of copies to be created, responsibilities for report production and presentation, etc.

7. Work Plan

A work plan is a kind of strategy that aims to help solve problems throughout a project and boost employee drive and focus. It determines what actions need to be taken to start, implement, and complete the project within a specified time period and under defined budget. It is often used as a general guide for developing a project implementation plan.

The Work Plan section of a Project Terms of Reference template should set out the activities and necessary resources required for achieving the project’s results and purpose. It should therefore include a summary of the anticipated work and time schedule, which are based upon the following:

  • An analysis of the issues, in terms of the evaluation criteria
  • The proposed implementation methodology
  • The reporting requirements
  • The finance resources allocated to the project.

Wrapping Up

The Terms of Reference is one of the most important documents that should be considered during the project management process. It defines the purpose, scope, deliverables, and timelines for the project, and it holds the stakeholders accountable for their deliverables.

Eric Morkovich

Eric is an enthusiastic project manager who has worked on various projects in the software industry for over ten years. He took on a variety of roles and responsibilities for projects and teams. Today Eric helps product companies review and improve their software definition, development, and implementation processes. Follow Eric on Twitter.

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