Understanding Movements and their Relevance (Part 2)

Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies
7 min readMar 7, 2023

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

In the first article of this series, I explained what movements are and their relevance. Movements shift the status quo in society by demanding something, defending something or changing the narrative. To quickly recap, 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

In this article, we go deeper into exploring their six notable defining features. I use examples from two contemporary movements in India and their initiator’s insights to help deepen our understanding.

Six Defining Features of Movements

Kuldeep Dantewadia is the Co-Founder of Reap Benefit. He is one of the weavers of a movement which empowers thousands of Indian youth to bring local change. The movement addresses the question, “How do we get young citizens to own their neighbourhood and resolve issues they see around them? How can they become first-mile problem-solvers to improve governance?”

Supriya Sankaran is the Co-Founder of Agami. Her team is catalysing a movement that aims to transform law and justice experiences in India. Agami intends to channel millions of citizens to go beyond seeking justice to creating solutions that make justice possible for themselves and their communities.

Power of Grassroots

Thousands of individuals with a shared understanding and intention are far more powerful than a hierarchical monolithic institution. It is why the best movements are built bottom-up. Nevertheless, engaging people in the ideas and principles of the movement and mobilising them is back-breaking work. Participants’ motivation flows because of the nature of belonging and relationships that the movement creates.

Supriya explains how the movement brought together hundreds of justice makers, including start-ups, Lok Adalats, lawyers, judges, general councils, journalists, nonprofit organisations and technologists, quoting the example of transformations in Online Dispute Resolution (ODR) over the past few years. Weaving the movement involves listening to those impacted by the problem and reframing a concrete opportunity for action tapping into the latent energy. This opportunity deepens the connection between diverse interested participants and activates the change process.

Balancing Action and Learning at Different Scales

Movements that believe in “Go Big, or Go Home” are less likely to succeed than movements that work simultaneously at the local, national and global levels. They are more likely to attain small wins, learn rapidly from them and apply these learnings in other contexts.

Movement leaders carefully strategise towards tangible vision-aligned, short-term goals and actions at each scale to ensure progress. They take one step at a time to best adapt to changing circumstances, seize new opportunities and act on new learning and insights.

The Solve Ninja platform became a platform to gather hyper-local data from citizens to map needs and allocate resources during the Covid Pandemic.

Despite Reap Benefit’s hyper-local focus, Solve Ninja, a technology platform, became a way to crowdsource the ground reality from its local youth networks and allies. Participants created a heatmap of functioning health facilities at primary health centres and district hospitals after India’s second Covid wave. The crowdsourced information supported the district authorities to allocate resources better to address the gaps, thereby influencing change on a larger scale. Not only did the movement focus on demanding better services, but it also improved the supply of solutions through crowd-creation processes, like hackathons.

Diverse and Crowdsourced Approaches, Woven Together

Leaders of a movement prefer leveraging the wisdom and initiative of their participants, who may have the proximity, interest, experience, or expertise to reach the right solution, instead of offering the answers themselves. They focus more on leading processes and practice to make the intended outcomes possible.

“Diversity of ideas is important,” says Supriya, “because we lose out on the quality of ideas without it. Often suggestions and ideas from experts in the field are limited to the typical ways of thinking and doing. New actors have a wider perspective and infuse new energy.”

She highlights an example of the e-Alternate Dispute Resolution (e-ADR) Challenge conceived by ICICI Bank, Agami and supported by CAMP. The challenge brought together hundreds of innovative models to address the problem. It led to the emergence of a community of champions from business, civil society and even the government that played a pivotal role in Online Dispute Resolution’s (ODR) subsequent development in India. Agami’s team played the role of field catalysts, supporting multiple competing solutions while nurturing a deeply collaborative community, building demand for change and eventually shifting the conversation.

Innovators and catalysts in the ODR community coming together for Autonomy 2.0 at the Agami Summit 2019

Dealing with Adversarial and Unlikely Allies

Great movements allow for healthy, generative dialogue amongst leaders to make the most effective decisions for the cause. Putting the ego and differences aside is essential for movements to thrive. No conflict is left unaddressed because doing so could create factions within the movement with varying and unpredictable commitments to action.

While dealing with external stakeholders or organisations, movement leaders see everyone as a potential ally and every opportunity to engage with someone as an opportunity to enlist them to the cause. Therefore, such movements do not create rigid stakeholder boundaries and are opportunistic in bringing onboard an unlikely ally.

According to Kuldeep, being a solution-oriented player is vital. The movement comprises various institutional partners — caste-based or religious organisations, citizen action groups, non-profits, local government bodies, etc.

Kuldeep says, “It is important not to push our agenda or judge the partner’s actions. We invite partners to collaborate in a way that works best for them.” To illustrate his point, he explains, “When many citizens participate in the change process, it is possible local elected representatives feel threatened. However, we help them see how participants in the movement are not just creating a demand for change, but also enabling solutions, reducing fatigue and strain in the system.”

Changing Hearts while Changing Policies

Movements that target changing policy without changing hearts are less likely to succeed than movements that aim for both. People are at the centre of movements, and appealing to their human nature and needs can create a powerful, unstoppable force for change, especially if it connects at the collective level. Research by Erica Chenoweth, a Political Scientist at Harvard University, shows that success for movements becomes inevitable when 3.5% of the population participates actively in coordinated nonviolent action. It can snowball into widespread support, eventually shifting public opinion and social norms.

Continuing the example of ODR, Supriya shares how SAMA, a member of the ODR Movement in India, addresses the challenges of building trust in an alternative new system, mitigating uneven access to technology and ensuring accurate information exchange, especially in rural areas. SAMA taps into the energy of case managers, who are law students under 25 years of age, volunteering in their localities. The case managers bring context, care and connection by listening deeply to each party involved, translating and relaying the needs to other relevant groups, including the Lok Adalats and the Technology Designers, and following through until closure. The rapid resolutions, coupled with the human touch, foster greater openness to adopt ODR practices through the system by both the seekers and traditional systemic stakeholders.

Multiple Sources of Leadership

Many successful modern movements may seem leaderless. But, in reality, they are full of leaders. Even famous historical movements of the world had a plethora of local and national leaders despite having charismatic icons like Nelson Mandela and Mohandas Gandhi represent them globally.

The initiators must be willing to lead from behind, embracing a long-term view of change and sharing their power, authority, and limelight. The initiators often define the principles and boundaries of the movement with the voice of all participant groups. Within these boundaries, the movement and its sub-groups may self-organise based on purpose, role or geography and contribute depending on their ability and willingness.

“The diversity of leadership impacts the diversity of participants in the movement”, exclaims Kuldeep. He describes the different roles leaders play, “I have learnt there are three types of leadership — leading from the front as contributors, leading from the side as supporters and leading from the back as mentors.”

The Reap Benefit Youth Advisory board has young people who have taken consistent action to bring about local change — demonstrated action is given weight above everything else in the movement’s leadership.

The movement for youth citizenship and local action disproportionately focuses on people who have taken demonstrated action above everything else to prevent biases of expecting specific skill sets, like planning or language proficiency. Kuldeep emphasises, “Local people know their problems the best, and having local leadership can encourage them to participate in the change process.” Reap Benefit’s internal work also emulates movement-based principles with distributed leadership and agency.

Given the complex context in which movements operate, their leaders embrace the six principles creatively and adaptively. However, at every movement’s foundation lies the core idea of fostering the agency of a diverse collective of people, including the ones most impacted by the problem.


Among the other contributors to the original report on Understanding Movements, a special thanks to Kuldeep Dantewadia, Reap Benefit and Supriya Sankaran, Agami, for offering their insights and experiences in this article.


  1. Understanding Movements (Kapil Dawda)
  2. How Change Happens Why Some Social Movements Succeed While Others Don’t (Leslie R. Crutchfield)
  3. New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World — and How to Make It Work for You (Jeremy Heimans, Henry Timms)
  4. The 3.5% Rule: How a small minority can change the world (David Robinson)
  5. The Success of Nonviolent Resistance (Erica Chenoweth)
  6. A Guide to Collaborative Leadership (Lorna Davis)