Passion for the outdoors informs work of Del Mar-based NCI’s new director

With a new executive director on board, a local nonprofit is hoping to make an even bigger impact on the world.

With a combined 20 years of experience in nonprofit management and major gift fundraising, John Ciullo was appointed executive director of Nature and Culture International’s North American office in mid-July.

“I’m convinced this is exactly what I’m supposed to be doing at this point in my life,” Ciullo said.

Based in Del Mar, Nature and Culture International has helped protect millions of acres of endangered ecosystems in Latin America. The organization aims to save 20 million acres by the year 2020.

“There’s a need to expand our reach to preserve very valuable ecosystems for future generations,” said Sheldon Engelhorn, who has served on NCI’s board for three years.

“It’s a people business, and John is very much a people-person. He is very humble, but very knowledgeable on how to go about expanding our reach and telling our story.”

Ciullo came on board not long after NCI president Byron Swift relocated to Northern California to work on behalf of the organization.

The move created a new position in the Del Mar office.

“John is very experienced and very comfortable with our mission and with the fundraising process,” added Ann Hunter-Welborn, a board member for more than a decade. “He’s going to be a huge help to all of us in creating a consistent and successful program.”

Ciullo most recently worked at Scripps, where he served as director of development for nearly eight years and championed a capital campaign project for Scripps Encinitas.

Opened in 2014, the critical-care building includes a new 26-bed emergency department and inpatient rooms at Scripps Encinitas. The 72,321-square-foot Leichtag Foundation Critical Care Pavilion is the centerpiece of the hospital’s $94 million second phase of expansion, which also includes a new central energy plant, new medical imaging technology and various infrastructure improvements on and around the medical campus.

“I’m really pleased about that project,” said Ciullo, who is originally from New York. “But I wanted my next position to be more aligned to some of my personal passions.”

Ciullo’s passion for the outdoors first led him to the national parks of Canada in the 1990s, where he met his wife, Jean, a fellow tour director. Their love of the environment later encouraged them to move to Argentina’s Patagonia region, where they started an ecotourism company.

“I have a background and a passion for all things nature,” said Ciullo, who holds a master’s in business from San Diego State University. “The mission about saving the rainforest, working with endangered ecosystems and saving indigenous cultures just fits perfectly with my history, my personal passions and what I’ve done in my life. The mission is very, very close to my heart.”

Ciullo became familiar with NCI about 17 years ago, when he met NCI founder Ivan Gayler, who is also co-founder of the development firm Del Mar Partnership. Over the years, Ciullo has volunteered his time and talents to assist the organization.

“I’ve always been terribly interested in the mission of the organization,” Ciullo said. “Now the stars aligned and this position became available with the strategic direction of the organization.”

When Gayler first founded the foundation in 1997, he used his own funds to help build the San Francisco Scientific Station on the northern edge of Podocarpus National Park in Ecuador. There, the German Research Foundation runs what is described as the largest tropical forest research program in the world, while offering training to locals.

Since then, NCI and its partners in Ecuador, Mexico and Peru have conserved more than 13.3 million acres of critical ecosystems in Latin America, ensuring the survival of countless species, through land purchases, community reserves and government reserves. This includes directly supporting the creation of 6.8 million acres of protected areas and 6.5 million acres of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) biosphere reserves.

Ciullo credits much of the organization’s success to the founder’s initial strategy of working from the ground up.

Though founded in Del Mar, NCI has only seven staff members locally, while 150 staff live and work in 16 offices in Ecuador, Mexico and Peru. Staff develop relationships within their communities to better understand and protect the local ecosystems.

“The model of NCI is not only working, it’s thriving,” Ciullo said. With the goal of protecting 20 million acres by the year 2020, the organization is expanding into Bolivia and Brazil and Colombia.

This year alone, NCI has helped to achieve the declaration of the 215,000-acre Gualaquiza Municipal Reserve in southern Ecuador’s Andean corridor — a global biodiversity hot spot.

In addition, two protected areas were declared in Colombia, totaling nearly 150,000 acres. These were the first in Colombia to be declared with NCI’s support.

Finally, the previously declared Maijuna-Kichwa Reserve in the Peruvian Amazon also gained recognition from Peru’s national government, a major accomplishment. The area spans nearly 1 million acres.

“We want to make sure that we keep working with the local governments, working with the local indigenous cultures,” Ciullo said. “At the same time, the resources are coming from the United States. If we’re going to 20 million acres saved, we’re going to need more resources to do that.

“This is going to benefit the planet,” Ciullo added. “It’s an international organization with an international mission.”

For more about NCI, visit Donations can be made online or at the Del Mar office at 1400 Maiden Lane.