Payments for ecosystem services (PES) are increasingly promoted as nature-based solutions to climate, envi- ronmental, and business challenges. While participation in PES schemes is mandated in countries such as China, Costa Rica, and Vietnam, it remains unclear how PES schemes emerge in countries devoid of national mandates. This article investigates how actors have attempted institutional change to enable PES, by reinterpreting or adapting national laws, policies, and plans. We present an analytical framework theorising how geographical variations in (1) institutional frameworks, and (2) actor capabilities, dictate which institutions actors attempt to change. We then apply this framework to multi-scalar actors and institutions in Thailand and the Philippines. Our empirics reveal the types of institutional work that actors perform such as advocacy, education, mimicry, and networking, and demonstrate how this creates legal and discursive support, and improves stakeholder awareness and acceptance of PES as an environmental management strategy. Eight formal institutions are shown to have undergone change to enable PES across these countries, including those related to indigenous people, energy production, protected areas, pollution control, carbon offsetting, and decentralised governance. We show institutional change to be a geographical and contextual process that requires actors to match the right types of institutional work, with the right mechanism of institutional change, and a suitable target institution if they are to be successful in effecting change. Yet, we also report failed attempts, and explain how informal cultural norms act as challenges to formal institutional change. Through our comparative analysis of multiple institutions, ac- tors, and national settings, we identify trends and make recommendations with global relevance to PES scholars and practitioners, and that can aid other initiatives that seek to address climate change and promote environ- mental sustainability.