What Are Terms of Reference?

Malcolm Tatum

"Terms of reference" refers to the collection of foundational concepts that help to define the reason for the implementation of some sort of project or program. Typically, the terms will cover all the foundational aspects related to the project, including the background and history that led to the creation of the project, defining its goals, and in some cases outlining how the ultimate purpose for the project will be achieved. In this sense, the terms of reference provide a blueprint for the project that gives the effort some substance and form, although there are normally expectations that the project will experience some growth and change along the way.

Businessman giving a thumbs-up
Businessman giving a thumbs-up

The exact elements that are identified as terms of reference will vary somewhat from one project to another. Since a project may be an ongoing effort or something that is of relatively short-term, the scope of activities covered under those terms will also vary. Whether the project consists of something that requires no more than a few committee meetings or involves the formation of a task force that functions for several years, there are a few basic elements that are likely to be included.

At the foundation of the terms of reference is the definition of why the project is implemented in the first place. This usually means articulating the background and history leading up to the decision to form the committee or task force. Along with creating that foundation, the terms of reference will also include the development of specific goals and objectives that the committee will seek to achieve as part of its work. Within the scope of defining those goals, there is often the creation of vision and mission statements that help to provide some degree of focus and form to the ongoing work of the committee members.

The terms of reference will also address other factors key to the success of the project. This includes identifying who will be involved in the project itself, both in terms of actively participating in the committee and who will offer support to that committee. Identifying the resources needed to reach the goals is also an essential component of the terms of reference. This includes resources such as finances, labor and even materials required in order to achieve the desired goals.

One final component of the terms of reference has to do with the establishment of a timeline for the completion of essential tasks related to the project. The idea is to create a means of measuring the forward movement of the project through the efforts of the committee members. When taken as a whole, the terms of reference help to answer the questions of why the project is taking place, what it hopes to achieve, how the goals will be achieved and even when specific tasks relevant to that final success will be completed.

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