Understanding Movements and their Relevance (Part 1)

Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies
3 min readFeb 16, 2023

A guest post by Kapil Dawda, Co-Initiator of the Wellbeing Movement. Kapil researched and compiled this study for Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies.

Many social and political movements emerge in the face of pressing crises. Some known examples are the Quit India Movement or Civil Rights Movement of the past and contemporary movements like Black Lives Matter or #MeToo. However, movements are not limited to those that arise in response to a crisis that escalates through triggering incidents. Many others address latent but essential social problems by applying the same principles. For example, YouthXYouth is an example of a worldwide movement focused on bringing back the agency of young people in defining their learning experience!

In the context of social change, a movement has:

  • A diverse collective of people and organisations coming together as participants
  • The shared intention to create wide-scale, transformational change focused on a social, economic, environmental, or political problem that guides the collective direction
  • Distributed, shared and bottom-up action by multiple participants, including those at the grassroots
Young people across the world have been coming together in the global Fridays for Future movement, questioning the current societal paradigms of monetary growth for a few at the cost of other people and the planet (Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash)

More than Collective Confrontational Action

In research commissioned by Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies, we discovered that movements are more than collective, confrontational action against oppressors in power. This view oversimplifies the complexity and leads us to think in terms of just bilateral dynamics.

Many lasting movements take a more systemic view. To view movements more holistically, we must observe the relationships between the leaders, the participants, the organisations and the stakeholder groups involved. It is also worth examining who the leaders are, what they do, how they lead and why the cause matters to them. It enables us to appreciate the open, participatory and peer-driven approach that allows a movement to tap into the energy of a diverse collective for transformative, societal change.

Relevance of Movements

Movements are relevant when we intend to shift the field in which stakeholders operate. A movement often commits to changing norms, attitudes and policies. It builds agency at scale in people to participate in this change process.

A movement-based approach may be most beneficial while dealing with complex, adaptive problems that have structural barriers (policies, practices, resource flows), relational barriers (relationships, connections, power dynamics) and transformational barriers (mental models, paradigms).

A movement-based approach may be most beneficial while dealing with complex, adaptive problems that have structural, relational and transformational barriers.

Kuldeep Dantewadia, Co-Founder of Reap Benefit, explains these barriers in the movement for citizenship, “We are an overpopulated country with understaffed public institutions. The political economy is not bought into the idea of citizen action. Citizens lack the willingness to solve local problems, and where they don’t, they lack the ability.”

Given the depth and scale at which movements create change, they are often time and effort-intensive. The rate of desired change is non-uniform and non-linear. The movement is influenced by both serendipity and precise planning and action.

Movements are a powerful tool in the hands of changemakers dealing with the scale and complexity of societal and planetary challenges. By understanding the nature of leadership, the participants’ motivations, and the quality of relationships in a movement, we can appreciate the process of movement building.

In the upcoming article of the series, we will go deeper into exploring the core principles of movements with perspectives from two contemporary movement builders in India.


  1. Understanding Movements (Kapil Dawda)
  2. The Water of Systems Change (John Kania, Mark Kramer, Peter Senge)
  3. Building a Movement, Deconstructing the Bird Cage (Yordanos Eyoel, John Kania, Kim Syman)
  4. How Change Happens Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t (Leslie R. Crutchfield)
  5. A Guide to Collaborative Leadership (Lorna Davis)