As many ecosystems worldwide are in peril, efforts to manage them sustainably require scientific advice. While numerous researchers around the world use a great variety of models to understand ecological dynamics and their responses to disturbances, only a small fraction of these models are ever used to inform ecosystem management. There seems to be a perception that ecological models are not useful for management, even though mathematical models are indispensable in many other fields. We were curious about this mismatch, its roots, and potential ways to overcome it. We searched the literature on recommendations and best practices for how to make ecological models useful to the management of ecosystems and we searched for ‘success stories’ from the past. We selected and examined several cases where models were instrumental in ecosystem management. We documented their success and asked whether and to what extent they followed recommended best practices. We found that there is not a unique way to conduct a research project that is useful in management decisions. While research is more likely to have impact when conducted with many stakeholders involved and specific to a situation for which data are available, there are great examples of small groups or individuals conducting highly influential research even in the absence of detailed data. We put the question of modelling for ecosystem management into a socio-economic and national context and give our perspectives on how the discipline could move forward.