Dramatic increases in human populations and per capita consumption, climate change, overexploitation of marine and freshwater resources, and deforestation have caused a litany of negative consequences for biodiversity. Such doom-and-gloom scenarios are widely known, frequently cited and frankly depressing. Although accurate assessments of threats have clear value for intervention planning, we believe there is also a need to reflect on successes. Such reflection provides balance to negative scenarios and may shift attention towards constructive, positive action. Here we use a systematic evaluation of 90 success stories provided by conservation scientists and practitioners to explore the characteristics of the projects perceived as being associated with success. Success was deemed to have occurred for 19.4% of the projects simply because an event had occurred (e.g. a law was passed) and for 36.1% of projects quantitative data indicated success (e.g. censuses demonstrated population increase). However, for most projects (63.9%) there was no evaluation and success was defined by the subjective opinion of the respondent. Conservation community members viewed successful projects most often as those being long-term (88%), small in spatial scale (52%), with a relatively low budget (68%), and involving a protectionist approach alone or in combination with another approach. These results highlight the subjectivity of definitions of success in conservation but also the characteristics of conservation efforts that the conservation community perceives as indicative of success.