Global do-gooder

How can CPAs find opportunities in the enviro revolution? Just ask Adam Koniuszewski, executive director of international NGO Green Cross.

Adam Koniuszewski was three when he arrived in Montreal in 1974 as an immigrant with his parents, who were escaping the political regime in their native Poland. At the airport, an immigration official handed his father $20 and said, “Welcome to Canada.”

Not knowing what to do next, the family took a cab ride to the north end of Montreal to figure it out. Luckily, that did not take long. The cabdriver had a friend who was renting apartments, so soon the family had a place to live, despite the fact that they could not pay rent. “You’ll find a job and you’ll pay me eventually,” the new landlord said. The senior Koniuszewski, an engineer, and his wife, a computer expert, were able to pursue their careers and start a new life, an opportunity their eldest son has never forgotten.

“The kind of welcome that we had shaped the kind of vision I have of what welcoming people should be,” says Koniuszewski, an accountant and finance professional who now works in Geneva as executive director and chief operating officer of Green Cross International. “The kind of welcome that we found in Montreal was exceptional. This is something that I cherish and that I think should be celebrated and recognized and will explain some of the projects that I’m doing now.”

In other words, he likes to engage with the community.

MARKED BY GREEN CROSS

Green Cross, founded by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in the early 1990s, is an NGO that works on issues such as climate change, security, poverty eradication and sustainable development. It has an annual budget of US$30 million, which comes from corporations, individuals, governments and foundations. With affiliates in more than 30 countries, it has worked to eliminate stockpiles of chemical weapons and has provided social and medical support in areas affected by nuclear contamination such as Chernobyl and Fukushima. It has also helped with toxic waste cleanup, pesticide reduction, renewable energy and conservation. Its Smart Water for Green Schools program has supported education and health initiatives in Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Senegal, Argentina, Bolivia, Mexico, Sri Lanka, China and Ukraine.

An example: Green Cross support for the recovery and environmentally friendly irrigation of degraded land in Senegal has provided employment for about 1,000 people now able to grow food in the area. “Now everyone wants to copy this project,” Koniuszewski says. “They see that it is successful both financially and from a sustainability point of view. It provides employment to people who would otherwise be unemployed.”

The organization got off to an inauspicious start here when Charles Caccia, an environmentalist and Liberal politician, died two years after establishing a Canadian branch in 2006.

Although David Suzuki, Canada’s most famous environmental activist, is on Green Cross’s honorary board and he, Elizabeth May and other well-known Canadians endorsed an important climate change report supported by Green Cross, the organization does not have a high profile here.

Koniuszewski’s path to the international NGO stratosphere seems on the surface an unlikely one. After growing up in Montreal, he earned a bachelor of business administration in finance and accountancy at Concordia University in 1995, became a member of the Quebec ordre and did postgraduate studies in financial institutions management, banking, corporate finance and securities law.

He worked for Deloitte in Montreal and London for five years and then for Altria Corporate Services in Lausanne, Switzerland, for three. After that he joined Altria subsidiary Philip Morris International in Switzerland, where he distinguished himself as a business development analyst, spearheading a major acquisition. He then worked in Poland for the company as director of corporate and regulatory affairs until Green Cross came calling in 2008.

But while the tobacco business may seem incongruous with projects that improve society, it was at Philip Morris that Koniuszewski, in one aspect of his job, began working in the field of corporate social responsibility.

“I was responsible for public affairs and as a huge multinational we had to be very involved in the community,” he says. He was working, for instance, with the largest organization representing the disabled in Poland, working for better access for people with disabilities.

“The business case for sustainability is crystal clear. Some of the world’s leading corporations are pressing ahead with green initiatives that boost the bottom line through lower costs and better sales. Sustainable design is driving innovations while people are inspired by a higher purpose. Ultimately businesses should mimic the way nature operates, with no pollution and zero waste. This will profit not only shareholders but everyone.”

What seems more interesting to Koniuszewski is that an accountant should find himself an associate fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science, founded in 1960 in part to promote the ethical use of scientific discoveries. He attended an academy conference in Geneva several months ago that addressed the issue of ethics in climate change science.

“It was very interesting, but not a place where you see too many accountants,” he laughs. Ditto for his appointment on a team recently constituted by French President François Hollande to draft a Declaration of Rights and Responsibilities for Humanity for presentation to the UN in October.

Nevertheless, this NGO executive always puts his accounting skills to good use. Part of Koniuszewski’s job is raising money and keeping an eye on where it goes. “I know where we stand at any point in time and I know where we should be,” he says. “I know the implications of receiving money late and paying it out too early. This has allowed me to manage the organization in a structured and coherent way.”

His business background also means he can comfortably speak the language of major corporate donors such as Giorgio Armani Fragrances and Tag Heuer SA, two companies that have partnered with Green Cross on water projects.

“Feet on the ground and head in the sky.” This is what comes to mind for William Becker when asked what makes Koniuszewski successful at his job. Becker, who lives in Golden, Colo., is the executive director of the Presidential Climate Action Project, which was formed to investigate what US presidents could do to act on climate change without approval from Congress. Becker has worked with Koniuszewski over the years on projects such as Gorbachev’s international Climate Change Task Force and has been part of the Green Cross delegation to climate change conferences.

“And then he and I are just good friends,” Becker says. “We collaborate on ideas and projects and dreams. Adam is someone whose talents span from the theoretical and the ideal down to the practical. He’s methodical and shows great attention to detail, and at the same time he’s a big thinker.”

“Adam gets things done,” Becker adds. “In fact, he is the guy who gets things done.”

Another thing Becker likes about Koniuszewski is his positive approach to what can seem like intractable environmental problems. Positivity is necessary, he says, to combat so-called apocalypse fatigue, the malaise and sense of hopelessness that can take hold when people are overloaded with threats of disaster and scenes of dystopia. “It’s important to project the fact that we have the ability to create a better future if we believe it and we put our minds to it and we collaborate to do it.”

CLIMATE OF HOPE?

Koniuszewski says he is, in fact, positive about the future. He believes more corporate leaders are beginning to get the message that protecting the environment is necessary for a prosperous future, not something that will get in the way. He believes more convincing still needs to be done, however, with those farther down the corporate food chain, especially people who manage the money.

“Oftentimes the leaders of the organization, or the owners, understand. But the staff, and oftentimes in the finance department, think that sustainability is a luxury that will be very costly to the organization.”

Koniuszewski’s commitment to the cause goes beyond his career at Green Cross. In 2007, he and his wife, Margo, founded their own nonprofit organization called The Bridge Foundation, with a mandate to raise awareness about global issues including sustainable development, resilience and social cohesion. Margo is the foundation’s president. She is also currently collecting material for a PhD dissertation on human resilience, which falls under the disciplines of pedagogy and psychology.

One of the couple’s recent initiatives — Education is a Window to the World — focuses on teaching students how to be good citizens in areas such as the environment and multiculturalism. Their pilot project is at the Kostka Jesuit junior high school in Krakow, a public school in a low-income area attended by 400 students from grades 7 to 9. To get it going they organized an event in a conference centre that attracted 1,700 students, parents, businesspeople, educators and city officials for a screening of the documentary film Trashed, in which actor Jeremy Irons travels to beautiful places spoiled by pollution.

At the school, one issue students are learning about is recycling and working with compost so that they can start a communal garden in the spring. If the students are successful at this school, supporters hope to interest other schools in Krakow, which suffers from a pollution problem caused in part by garbage incineration.

“This is just the beginning,” says Rev. Pawel Brozyniak, director general at Kostka Jesuit. “The idea is to eventually multiply this project among other schools. The Jesuits have an international network of schools, so it may be easier to spread this idea. Through this, students can see environmental problems from a local perspective and a global perspective.”

Rev. Brozyniak says the project is important because it will help empower students, build self-esteem and teach them respect for the Earth’s resources, which will be endangered if they continue to be spoiled and wasted. “As Jesuits we try to teach students to be grateful for the environment that they have and to use it wisely.”

As he does in his day job at Green Cross, Koniuszewski is busy forming partnerships with businesses and educational institutions to help with the foundation’s work. One such business is Oknoplast Group, a Polish manufacturer of energy-efficient windows, which is exploring how retrofits might be able to reduce heating costs in the school. Another is Philips Lighting, which has agreed to do an audit at the school and may help with installing energy-saving LED lights. Philips has also discussed the installation of so-called smart lighting, which varies according to different educational needs.

“Adam came to me with a good idea and he is looking for good partners,” Rev. Brozyniak says. “We understand each other.”

Koniuszewski says it’s gratifying to be working in Poland, the land he left when he was three. At the same time, he keeps an eye open for opportunities in Canada, the country that became his home.

YOUTH REVOLUTION

Through The Bridge Foundation, he is raising funds to organize a United Nations Youth Leadership sports camp in Montreal for 2017. The program, which brings together young leaders from around the world, appeals to him because of its mandate to promote international peace and co-operation. His interest is also personal, as he is a long-distance runner, Ironman triathlete and skier and says that sports have always been a big part of his life.

An aspirational goal for the future is an increased presence for Green Cross in Canada. With Prime Minister Justin Trudeau showing more interest in the environment than his predecessor did, Koniuszewski hopes that will eventually be doable.

About the Author

Susan Smith


Susan Smith is a freelance writer in Toronto.

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