Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to evaluate the introduction of a voluntary sector pilot project to develop innovative mental health services for young people. Design/methodology/approach – A combination of observation, interview and group discussion with service providers and users was used to build a picture of the relationships between context, mechanism and outcome. Findings – The project was perceived as successful and beneficial in all three pilot sites, although there were differences of perception as to whether it complemented or challenged existing statutory services. Practical implications – Learning about what adolescents and young adults with complex mental health needs find helpful may help to develop more appropriate and acceptable services. A mental health service for young people delivered by the voluntary sector offers the opportunity for radical service innovation. Synergy may be achieved as a result of statutory and voluntary sectors working together but the ethos of the voluntary service may challenge that of the statutory services. Originality/value – The research is original in that it examines the process of introducing an innovative voluntary sector project into an existing traditional service framework.