Our current understanding of biology is heavily based on 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 the development of ecologically and taxonomically diverse marine protist genetic models. The development of new models faces many barriers, some technical and others institutional, and this often discourages the risky, long-term effort that may be required. To lower these barriers and tackle the complexity of this effort, a highly collaborative community-based approach was taken. Herein, we describe this approach, the advances achieved, and the lessons learned by participants in this novel community-based model for research.