Both the number and the extent of protected areas have grown considerably in recent years, but evaluations of their effectiveness remain partial and are hard to compare across cases. To overcome this situation, first, we suggest reserving the term effectiveness solely for assessing protected area outcomes, to clearly distinguish this from management assessments (e.g., sound planning). Second, we propose a multidimensional conceptual framework, rooted in social–ecological theory, to assess effectiveness along three complementary dimensions: ecological outcomes (e.g., biodiversity), social outcomes (e.g., well-being), and social–ecological interactions (e.g., reduced human pressures). Effectiveness indicators can subsequently be evaluated against contextual and management elements (e.g., design and planning) to shed light on management performance (e.g., cost-effectiveness). We summarize steps to operationalize our framework to foster more holistic effectiveness assessments while improving comparability across protected areas. All of this can ensure that protected areas make real contributions toward conservation and sustainability goals.