Summary A common approach to nature conservation is to identify and protect natural ‘assets’ such as ecosystems and threatened species. While such actions are essential, protection of assets will not be effective unless the ecological processes that sustain them are maintained. Here, we consider the role of ecological processes and the complementary perspective for conservation arising from an emphasis on process. Many kinds of ecological processes sustain biodiversity: including climatic processes, primary productivity, hydrological processes, formation of biophysical habitats, interactions between species, movements of organisms and natural disturbance regimes. Anthropogenic threats to conservation exert their influence by modifying or disrupting these processes. Such threats extend across tenures, they frequently occur offsite, they commonly induce non-linear responses, changes may be irreversible and the full consequences may not be experienced for lengthy periods. While many managers acknowledge these considerations in principle, there is much scope for greater recognition of ecological processes in nature conservation and greater emphasis on long time-frames and large spatial scales in conservation planning. Practical measures that promote ecological processes include: monitoring to determine the trajectory and rate of processes; incorporating surrogates for processes in conservation and restoration projects; specific interventions to manipulate and restore processes; and planning for the ecological future before options are foreclosed. The long-term conservation of biodiversity and the well-being of human society depend upon both the protection of natural assets and maintaining the integrity of the ecological processes that sustain them.