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Digital tools & distributed organizing mobilize thousands in support of Hungary’s oppressed teachers

Nilesh Pinto

Photo of a protest in Hungary for teacher's rights
Photo: noÁr

Sixteen cities. Sixteen simultaneous protests. 50,000 petition signatures and 150,000 stickers distributed. Thousands of people on the streets and thousands of euros raised in donations.

You’re probably thinking it took an army of experienced campaigners and event managers to make this happen. The reality: one activist actor and a couple of young part-time staffers to build a movement and rally their supporters.

So how did they do it? Cue distributed organizing coupled with the nimble use of digital tools to turn online enthusiasm into offline action.

Standing up for the teachers

Launched five years ago, noÁr is a Hungary-based movement dedicated to mobilizing citizens for social change. Since its inception, noÁr has organized actions around issues ranging from refugee rights and free speech to climate change and mobilizing disengaged voters. For the most part, it relied on the large social media following of its leader, actor-activist Áron Molnár. The influencer model brought noÁr considerable success. But after embracing digital organizing tools including an active email program to boost two-way supporter engagement, noÁr has turbocharged its growth and impact to the extent that it found itself at the forefront of one of Hungary’s most significant political moments in recent memory.

For the past year, Hungary’s teachers have been waging a courageous battle against Viktor Orban’s government over their poverty-line wages and dismal working conditions. Dozens of protesting teachers who have participated in civil disobedience action have lost their jobs or have been docked their pay. Adding insult to injury, the government struck another blow by proposing a new ‘status law’ that would revoke teachers' status as public employees. Dubbed the ‘revenge law’ by critics, the law would worsen the working conditions of teachers and also punish students and parents by destabilizing the entire education system.

noÁr had long been voicing support for the teachers and had put its weight behind Tanitanek, a teacher-led movement that had been mobilizing teachers since early-2022. And when the status law was announced, noÁr swung into action by collaborating with Tanitanek and launching a petition that demanded the law be scrapped. With a modest budget, they launched social media ads to promote the petition. And within hours, a couple of thousand people signed the petition and signed up to noÁr’s email list, laying a strong foundation for them to scale up the campaign.

By redirecting petition signers to a donation page and also emailing their supporters to seek financial support for the campaign, they were able to generate funding to grow their ad budget and thereby the reach of the petition. Within a few weeks, the number of petition signers crossed over 50,000. The movement simultaneously kept its growing list of email subscribers engaged by providing them regularly updates about the status law and giving them new ways to contribute to the cause such as forwarding the petition to three family members or friends. noÁr also adopted small-donor fundraising specifically for stickers in support of the teachers that could be sent to supporters and be plastered across the country. They produced 25,000 stickers in the first batch, but they were sold out after just a day and had to quadruple their stock.

Scaling up via a decentralized campaign

Despite the huge swell of public anger, the government held firm and refused to back down about its proposed law. And that’s when noÁr decided it needed to take its campaign to the next level. They needed to act big and they needed to act fast. The movement sent out a survey to its supporters seeking their feedback on what should be done next. The biggest takeaway: the campaign needed to expand beyond the capital Budapest to smaller cities and towns where aggrieved teachers and their sympathizers had no outlet to vent their frustrations.

While it was a great idea in theory, it was seemingly an impossible task for noÁr’s skeletal staff to execute. But that’s when the concept of distributed organizing came to their aid. Popularized more recently by Bernie Sanders in the US, distributed organizing is a decentralized campaign structure for electoral and advocacy campaigns of all sizes. Aimed at shifting power to communities, it taps into the hyperlocal potential of the community and the snowball effect has the potential to transform the broader campaign. The biggest plus point: distributed organizing has massive potential for scale as volunteers take on more responsibility. With this knowledge in its back pocket, noÁr’s team decided to give distributed organizing a try.

“We did not need to physically travel around Hungary to find people who wanted to volunteer. We had built a strong connection with our supporters and when we sent out an email asking people whether they would like to organize protests, we found willing volunteers pretty quickly,” says Dominik Kubik, who led noÁr’s distributed organizing campaign. “We created a centralized toolkit including handbooks on how to organize a protest and small hacks about finding effective speakers and the volunteers did the rest. We also offered them nominal financial support. In the end, we managed to have 16 simultaneous protests in 16 cities. And we managed to do this in just a couple of weeks.”

The large-scale turnout of people from all walks of life at the rallies was aided by noÁr’s mobilization efforts via email. “Action Network’s CRM features made it possible for us to geo-target our emails down to specific zip codes. In this way, we were really able to personalize our messages and persuade our supporters to turn out for the protests.”

Building for the future

Despite noÁr’s successful mobilization campaign and weeks of public pressure from thousands of Hungarians, the Orban government refused to be cowed down and parliament passed the bill into law before the president signed it a few days later. But Kubik says it’s worth taking a look at the big picture.

“The big learning for us was that people have the hunger to participate and to do a little bit more one day at a time. It’s up to us to give them the opportunity and the tools to be engaged,” says Kubik. “There were a lot of people who had heard about the status law and felt strongly about it, but they did not have the opportunity to react. Signing a simple petition made them feel like they could make their voice heard and we were able to capitalize on a moment that really mattered to the public.”

But getting petition signers on their email list was only the beginning. noÁr’s distributed organizing success would not have happened had it not invested time in building up a relationship with supporters and keeping them engaged. “A few weeks after people signed the petition, we sent out a form asking people how they see their role in the movement. And that’s how we found volunteers to organize the multi-city protests,” says Kubik.

Guiding up supporters this ladder of engagement has also laid the foundation for noÁr’s future plans. Soon after the Hungarian parliament signed the status law, noÁr launched an open letter campaign to the president. More than 28,000 people signed it in the first 16 hours. And while the campaign did not produce the desired result, noÁr managed to identify supporters who are willing to go the extra mile. “The petition and open letter succeeded in uniting people who realized that something must urgently be done about the educational system. We now have dozens of people who want to do a lot more than signing a petition and it is these people who will mobilize masses for the future. So it’s true that we lost the battle, but we have a lot more people to fight the war as we continue fighting for the cause of teachers and the education system.”

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