Abstract Our current understanding of biology is heavily based on the contributions from a small number of genetically tractable model organisms. Most eukaryotic phyla lack such experimental models, and this limits our ability to explore the molecular mechanisms that ultimately define their biology, ecology, and diversity. In particular, marine protists suffer from a paucity of model organisms despite playing critical roles in global nutrient cycles, food webs, and climate. To address this deficit, an initiative was launched in 2015 to foster development of ecologically and taxonomically diverse marine protist genetic models. This multifaceted, complex but important challenge required a highly collaborative community-based approach. Herein we describe this approach, the advances achieved, and the lessons learned by participants in this novel community-based model for research.