Providing benefits to local people from forest conservation programmes is an important issue for policy makers. Livelihood projects are a common way to provide benefits, but there is little information about their costs. We analysed 463 livelihood projects in the Ankeniheny-Zahamena Corridor Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) pilot project in Madagascar to understand how different approaches to delivering livelihood projects affect costs. We compared costs across four approaches: conservation agreements, small grants, direct implementation and application of social safeguards. The approach impacted overall costs and the proportion of funds reaching communities. Projects implemented as safeguards were most expensive and had the lowest proportion of expenditures reaching the community. Projects provided as part of conservation agreements directed the highest proportion of expenditures to communities. Our results highlight that how livelihood projects are delivered has implications for project costs and community benefits and should be an important consideration in the design and implementation of REDD+ and forest conservation policies.