Effective conservation of ecological communities requires accurate and up-to-date information about whether species are persisting or declining to extinction. The persistence of an ecological community is supported by its underlying network of species interactions. While the persistence of the network supporting the whole community is the most relevant scale for conservation, in practice, only small subsets of these networks can be monitored. There is therefore an urgent need to establish links between the small snapshots of data conservationists can collect, and the “big picture” conclusions about ecosystem health demanded by policymakers, scientists, and societies. Here, we show that the persistence of small subnetworks (motifs) in isolation—that is, their persistence when considered separately from the larger network of which they are a part—is a reliable probabilistic indicator of the persistence of the network as a whole. Our methods show that it is easier to detect if an ecological community is not persistent than if it is persistent, allowing for rapid detection of extinction risk in endangered systems. Our results also justify the common practice of predicting ecological persistence from incomplete surveys by simulating the population dynamics of sampled subnetworks. Empirically, we show that our theoretical predictions are supported by data on invaded networks in restored and unrestored areas, even in the presence of environmental variability. Our work suggests that coordinated action to aggregate information from incomplete sampling can provide a means to rapidly assess the persistence of entire ecological networks and the expected success of restoration strategies.