Conservation strategies to protect biodiversity and support household livelihoods face numerous challenges. Across the tropics, efforts focus on balancing trade-offs in local communities near the borders of protected areas. Devolving rights and control over certain resources to communities is increasingly considered necessary, but decades of attempts have yielded limited success and few lessons on how such interventions could be successful in improving livelihoods. We investigated a key feature of household well-being, the experience of food insecurity, in villages across Tanzania's northern wildlife tourist circuit. Using a sample of 2,499 primarily livestock-keeping households we compared food insecurity in villages participating in the country's principal community-based conservation strategy with nearby control areas. We tested whether community-based projects could offset the central costs experienced by households near strictly protected areas (i.e. frequent human–wildlife conflict and restricted access to resources). We found substantial heterogeneity in outcomes associated with the presence of community-based conservation projects across multiple project sites. Although households in project villages experienced more frequent conflict with wildlife and received few provisioned benefits, there is evidence that these households may have been buffered to some degree against negative effects of wildlife conflict. We interpret our results in light of qualitative institutional factors that may explain various project outcomes. Tanzania, like many areas of conservation importance, contains threatened biodiversity alongside areas of extreme poverty. Our analyses highlight the need to examine more precisely the complex and locally specific mechanisms by which interventions do or do not benefit wildlife and local communities.