The third sector is in the grip of general election fever. Gordon Brown may not have fired the starting gun for this year's general election yet, but barely a day goes by without a charity issuing a manifesto setting out a list of demands for the next government.
They range from sector-wide addresses issued by umbrella bodies to cause-specific shopping lists from individual organisations. Manifestos are clearly in vogue with charity policy teams, which see them as a key weapon in the run-up to election day.
There is surprisingly little consensus, however, on what these statements of ambition are for - or, indeed, who they are for. For some organisations, they are intended to influence the promises made by the political parties once the election is called. "Parliamentary candidates want votes, and that makes them more open to listening to the views of their constituents and more likely to commit to changes that will improve voters' lives," says Tristana Rodriguez, policy officer at Action for ME, which issued its 2010 Election Manifesto for ME in February.
Age UK has taken a similar view on its call for action: Our Power is Our Number. "The election offers a golden opportunity to put pressure on the parties and draw attention to issues we want them to address, such as pensioner poverty," says a spokesman for the charity. Age UK hopes the high number of older voters will ensure politicians pay attention, he adds: "There are 14 million people aged over 60, and most of them vote."
But with an election only weeks away, the likelihood is that each political party already has a near-complete manifesto ready to go, suggesting that the time to alter the policy agendas of the parties may have already come and gone.
Louise Richards, directory of policy and campaigns at the Institute of Fundraising, admits the chances of altering party manifestos now is slim. "Our hope is that some of what we're saying in our manifesto will appear in the party manifestos," she says. "But in reality it is unlikely to happen."
Richards's view begs an obvious question: why bother creating an election manifesto when the party manifestos may already be set in stone?
The answer is that the task of influencing a new government is a long-term goal, according to Ann Blackmore, head of campaigns and communications at the NCVO, which has produced a manifesto called We Believe in the Good Society. "It's too late now to influence the top-line policies of the first few months after the election, but our manifesto doesn't just stop after election day," she says. "There are select committees, new MPs and so on to reach."
New MPs are a big focus for many of the charities now releasing manifestos. The resignations of MPs after the expenses scandal, coupled with the swing to the Conservatives since the last general election, promise the biggest change in the make-up of Parliament since the end of the Second World War. "Even if we had the same electoral outcome as in 2005, Parliament would look very different," says Blackmore.
Farah Nazeer, head of policy and strategy at the MND Association, which has produced a manifesto calling for a national motor neurone disease strategy, agrees: "There's a 40 per cent turnover of MPs ahead, and that brings new potential for gaining support in Parliament for the MND Association."
Candidates hoping to set foot in Parliament for the first time later this year are a prime target for almost every charity that is producing an election manifesto, although charities are using various methods to get their message in front of them. The Campaign to Protect Rural England, for example, is seeking to harness the power of its national supporter network to get its Vote for the Countryside in 2010 manifesto in front of candidates as they pound the streets in search of votes.
"One of the strengths of the CPRE is our local network," says Ben Stafford, head of campaigns at the charity. "The election is a great opportunity for people on the ground to raise issues during the campaign when speaking to candidates on the doorstep. All our branches and district and regional groups have been given copies of our manifesto."
The charity is also encouraging its local branches to feed back information from such doorstep encounters to the national office so they know which candidates have endorsed the manifesto. "We're already getting responses from candidates," says Stafford. "From here and from our branches we can go back to successful candidates who sign up, and we can build up a network of supportive MPs after the election, regardless of the result."
Age UK has adopted a similar strategy. "At local level, we've produced a shorter version of our manifesto for our partners to present to local candidates, so people can harangue politicians about the issues on the doorstep," says the spokesman. "We present it as five key questions for candidates."
For charities lacking a local network, the focus is less about winning over candidates on the doorstep and more about ensuring that their message has reached the right people by the time the post-election Parliament and government is formed. "At this point you can still influence things at a local level, but for national campaigns it's more about the work you have put in during the previous year or so," says the NCVO's Blackmore.
The umbrella body wants its manifesto to reach three audiences in the run-up to polling day. It wants its goals to be known by the sector as a whole so pressure can be applied by numerous organisations; and it wants to get its key messages in the public mind by generating media coverage. Finally, it wants the manifesto to reach the political party researchers, think tanks and civil servants who will advise those elected. "The third audience for us is the political opinion formers, including the civil servants," says Blackmore. "We want them to be aware that we are one of the organisations to speak to on certain issues."
What makes a successful manifesto is, at best, an inexact science. The size of the manifestos being produced by charities, for example, varies wildly. That of Age UK spans 28 pages, that of the CPRE only four. Stafford believes small is beautiful. "I have seen some manifestos with a lot of detail, but candidates have five minutes to look at your manifesto, so it has to be short, snappy and relevant," he says. "You don't want it to be detail-free, but you do want it to be concise."
Age UK does have a slimmed-down version for use at local level, but also sees advantages in its more detailed, full-length version. "It's good to provide a document that includes an overview of the issues, with figures and statistics showing what we are calling for," says the charity's spokesman. "We use a reduced version for local partners, but we really invite politicians to read through the main version because it's clearly divided into six areas, so people shouldn't get lost."
What the candidates think
"I'm much more aware now, as a candidate, of charity manifestos than I was as an MP because I now have to open my own post. The more charities can localise and personalise their manifestos, the better. Having supporters ready to raise points on the doorstep is great. Most people want to discuss local issues, so it can make a pleasant change if someone wants to discuss a national issue."
- Stephen Twigg Labour, PPC for West Derby
"My advice to charities is to get constituents to contact candidates. Two types of manif esto stand out for me. The first are those that talk about an issue I'm particularly concerned about; the second is when they get a constituent to write in about the issue with an address because, as with any communication from a constituent, I want to reply quickly."
- Richard Grayson, Liberal Democrat, PPC for Hemel Hempstead
"What I really like is when there's something positive that I can do, such as signing up to a pledge or being involved in a campaign in a meaningful way as someone who is not yet elected. I signed up to the British Legion's No Return to Rationing campaign and mentioned that - along with a number of others - in the newsletters I've sent to constituents."
- Dr Myfanwy Davies, Plaid Cymru, PPC for Llanelli
"These manifestos are often promoted to every candidate in the same way. Even when it comes from local supporters of the charity, it tends to be the same thing they send everywhere. They should write to candidates personally. It would be better if they asked for support with a particular project rather than asking us to sign up to national pledges that are often more like platitudes."
- Jason Sugarman, Conservative, PPC for Lewes