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Coordinating Philanthropy To Support The Next Generation Of Canadian Olympic Athletes

Elisa Iannarelli | Philanthropic Coordinator | Canadian Olympic Foundation

Working for the Foundation is the perfect combination of all the aspects that I loved about my other roles – working in sports, helping others through philanthropy, and being involved with major events.

Elisa Iannarelli

Philanthropic Coordinator

Canadian Olympic Foundation

× The interview with Elisa Iannarelli was conducted via a typed conversation. Editing changes were made to make it easier to read while maintaining the voice of the interview.

Tell us about your role as the Philanthropic Coordinator of the Canadian Olympic Foundation.

As a member of the Canadian Olympic Foundation, my job is to help raise money for Canadian Olympians, to ensure they have the funds needed to pursue their Olympic dreams. We support our current Olympians and the emerging Next Generation, as well as the broader Canadian sport system, as the national charity of Team Canada.

As a Philanthropic Coordinator, my role consists of a variety of tasks and responsibilities that contribute to the fundraising priorities of the organization. I manage relationships with and provide stewardship to our Marketing Partners, as well as support our events portfolio.

As a team, we often collaborate on many projects and campaigns, and as a result, I end up supporting all the areas of the organization. My role consists of other day-to-day tasks such as processing donations and tax receipts, managing website updates, conducting prospect research, and tracking the grants that we issue.

This past February we hosted a gala in Vancouver to mark the 10th Anniversary of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, and most of the weeks and months leading up to the Gala were spent working on event logistics. However, since then, my work has shifted to donor stewardship and our alumni program.

As a team, we have had to adjust and create new ways to fundraise in the current climate of COVID-19. Our current focus is on raising money to help our athletes safely return to sport, to protect not only our athletes, but their families and broader communities, as they prepare for Tokyo and beyond.

Our industry is constantly changing and evolving, and our organization recognizes that we must change and evolve with it, adjusting our strategies and creating new initiatives.

Whether it is finding new ways to engage with Canadians, or generating new campaigns that our donors can support, our jobs are forever changing which makes life exciting.

Has philanthropic work through sport always been an interest of yours? How did you get involved in this industry?

As an athlete and a fan, sports have always been a passion of mine and a field I wanted to work in, but philanthropy was honestly never one that I considered.

Going through school I always loved science and psychology and aspired to become a physiotherapist or a sport psychologist. I dreamed of helping others and making a difference in people’s lives. It wasn’t until the end of my undergrad that I decided to explore sport management instead, specifically the not-for-profit sector. Along with that, I have always been passionate about the Olympics, and working within the Olympic Industry quickly became a goal of mine.

I was first introduced to a career in philanthropy at my first job after university at the University of Toronto’s Alumni and Advancement department, which manages alumni relations and is responsible for fundraising for the school. I worked with varsity teams and helped raise funds, as well as worked with faculty donors to create and distribute student awards. It was a great introduction to philanthropy and opened my eyes to a whole new sector while also allowing me to develop many transferable skills.

Another career that I have always wanted, whether tied to philanthropy or not, is in event management.

In 2015, I had the opportunity to be part of the organizing committee for the FIFA Women’s World Cup. This was the first role where I truly felt I was in the sport industry, and this event really confirmed that this was the right career path for me.

The competition period was hectic and stressful at times, working every day for four weeks, overseeing staff and teams nationwide, and having strict deadlines and timelines, but being a part of that team and watching all of our hard work come together was truly such a rewarding experience. 

Following my return to school for a year, I was fortunate enough to get an internship with the Canadian Olympic Committee, and while there, I was introduced to the Foundation. Working for the Foundation seemed like the perfect combination of all the aspects that I loved about my other roles – working in sports, helping others through philanthropy, and being involved with major events.

Although I never imagined myself working in this area, I’m thankful to have a career in Philanthropy.

I spend my days creating positive change by helping athletes pursue their dreams and create their own legacies, and in turn, inspiring Canadians to participate in sports and become part of the Olympic movement.

What part of your position do you like the most and why?

By far, the best part about my position is the people I get to interact with – from coworkers to athletes to donors and partners. Every day I am surrounded by brilliant, unique people who I get to collaborate with and learn from. As an organization we often have large projects that require brainstorming and expertise from various departments with different backgrounds and skillsets. 

Like many, I grew up dreaming of one day going to the Olympics and getting to represent my country, and although I never achieved that dream, I love that I get to help other young athletes achieve their Olympic dreams.

It is so rewarding to hear stories from athletes who receive funding, and the gratitude they express to the Foundation and our donors. Through interviews and events, we’re able to connect with many of our athletes and hear their stories of dedication, tenacity, and resiliency, and I am constantly inspired by them.

Through my role, I’m also able to interact with donors, from the Major Gift level, to those who donate through our Direct Mail program. As an organization, we strive to personally call all our donors, no matter the size of their gift, to thank them for their support.

It is often those phone calls with donors sharing stories of watching the Olympics for years and being inspired by a particular moment or athlete or telling us about a family member of theirs who is working towards a National team selection, that put smiles on our faces and remind us of why we do what we do.

What advice do you have for young professionals who are looking for their passion, particularly in the sport industry?

Finding a career that you love and an area that you are passionate about is going to look different for everyone and can often be the most difficult first step. 

If you are someone who doesn’t know what area of the industry you are most interested in or gets overwhelmed when asked “What is your dream job?”, know that you are not alone. I’m years into my career, with multiple roles under my belt, and I still don’t know where I am going to end up 15 years down the road.

A lot of times it seems that people feel that they must find their perfect role or work for the perfect company right from the beginning. But for most of us, that isn’t feasible or realistic. People grow and develop in their roles, and sometimes need new adventures and challenges with different organizations, especially in sports.

My advice to those who are struggling to find their passion is to not be so hard on yourself. Use the time you have to try as many things as you can, especially at the beginning of your career. You can volunteer, apply for internships, attend networking events, sign up for webinars and so much more. There’s a reason why you hear this same advice so often: because it truly makes a difference.

As well, learn about as many different areas of the industry as you can, and don’t limit yourself to the larger organizations. Although you may end up as the CEO of MLSE one day, you never know what smaller organizations you’ll work for along the way.

For most people, their careers aren’t linear. Don’t be afraid to apply for new roles, even if it is a lateral move, to develop new skills and meet new individuals. There are so many different areas within the sports industry that most people are unaware of until they do their research or start their careers.

Networking is also a very common piece of advice I’ve head, and for good reason. During my job at UofT, I mentioned to many people that working for the COC was my goal, and eventually, someone I spoke with was able to connect me with a friend of hers who worked there. This connection provided me with a wealth of knowledge about the organization and its structure. 

My last piece of advice is to stay open-minded. Regardless of how much you love your current role, do not be afraid to continue growing and developing new skills. You may find that after years in the same role, your passion has shifted, and you are ready to find a new role that excites you.

As someone who returned to school in my late 20s, I’m grateful to have had that opportunity to pivot, learn new skills, and expand my network, and I hope that everyone gets that same opportunity should they choose.

In your opinion, what are some aspects of working in the sport industry that they don’t teach you in university?

As I said earlier, the more you work in the sports industry, the more you realize there are so many ways to be connected to sport without working for one of the larger sports organizations.

There are amazing avenues within the industry that often people aren’t aware of. I was fortunate to graduate from a Sport Business Management post-grad program where we were introduced to many of the potential career paths within the sport industry from marketing and communications to finance.

But even beyond the vast list of courses we took, there are many other sectors, for example, corporate governance or team operations, that we were not exposed to.

The sport industry, although vast, can feel quite small. It’s common to run into the same people at networking events or find plenty of mutual connections with new coworkers. These connections within the industry are something I never truly understood until I began working.

This is an industry filled with some extremely inspiring, intelligent, and dedicated individuals who share a passion for sport and the impact it can make on society. Many of the people I meet are not only individuals who I am excited to work with, but also people who I enjoy learning from and connecting with on a personal level, and I am forever grateful for the relationships I have made throughout my career.

Ella Bonaldi Ella's Final Thoughts

The sport industry contains many different streams of work, and one that often gets overlooked is philanthropy. I had the opportunity to chat with Elissa Iannarelli, who currently works as the Philanthropic Coordinator for the Canadian Olympic Foundation. Her role includes managing important relationships between athletes and donors, and ensuring that current Olympians have enough funding to help fuel their dreams of representing Canada and reaching the podium. In today’s climate with COVID-19, she also assists the COF team in finding new ways to engage Canadians and generating new campaigns for donors to support while in quarantine. Although Iannarelli’s current role wasn’t something she had always envisioned for herself, today she finds her work rewarding and is so grateful for the opportunity to support emerging and already established athletes with the funding they need. Iannarelli’s advice on finding your passion and navigating the sport management industry is very helpful for young professionals who may be exploring this industry. 

Connect With Elisa Iannarelli