Purpose - To report on findings from the evaluation of two innovative community-based prevention projects in the UK targeted at children disaffected from school, one involving football the other horticulture. Design/methodology/ approach - Qualitative inquiry focusing on three areas: "theories of change" underpinning the projects; referral and operational processes; inter-agency partnerships. Main methods were: an interactive event for 50 practitioners; semi-structured interviews with project staff, project participants and other stakeholders; review of project documentation; observations. Findings - Both the projects evaluated had clear and plausible "theories of change". Referral processes were effective. Strong variations in "dosage" and length of project involvement appeared to be linked to differences in the effectiveness of the two projects. Research limitations/implications - The principal limitation to the research was the lack of case monitoring and outcome data that prevented any quantitative assessment of the projects. Further research is needed to establish the long-term impact of this kind of targeted prevention work. Practical implications - Prevention work targeted at children disaffected from school needs to be underpinned by clear "theories of change". Effective work requires good relationships with referring schools, the delivery of multi-faceted interventions and interventions to be of an adequate length. Originality/value - The focus on "theories of change" or mechanisms is an original contribution to the prevention literature. The paper will be valuable for those working in drug action teams and local authorities in planning prevention work for young people. The two projects were highly innovative in involving pupils in two very different activities - football and horticulture. © Emerald Group Publishing Limited.