Understanding Movements

Understanding Movements

What follows is an excerpt from the Understanding Movements report, researched by Kapil Dawda, commissioned by Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies. You can access the full report and the accompanying Understanding Movements deck at the bottom of this post.

A movement in its simplest form is an act or process of moving. For example, an object moving from point A to point B embodies a movement.

In the context of social change, there are multiple ways to move from point A to point B. The most commonly encountered approach in the modern world is a programmatic one. It is employed by social and private sector organisations and governments through scale programs, like the Samagra Shiksha Abhiyan. There are also collective-impact-based approaches, which have a more distributed and networked way of approaching change. Lastly, there are movements, a particular kind of collective impact.

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

Many famous movements emerged in the face of pressing crises. Some examples are the
Quit India Movement or Civil Rights Movement of the past and contemporary movements like the Arab Spring 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, not urgent problems by applying the same principles. For example, Service Space is a global movement to unleash the innate spirit of generosity in people. YouthXYouth is another example of a worldwide movement focused on bringing back the agency of young people in their learning experience!

Movements are more than collective, confrontational action against oppressors in power. This view over-simplifies 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 most importantly, why they do it. It enables us to appreciate how movements work with a diverse collective to bring social, environmental or political change.

In their book New Power, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms define New Power as “a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it is most forceful when it surges. The goal of ‘new power’ is not to hoard but to channel.” By this definition, movements are a form of new power focused on bringing societal change.

Access the Understanding Movements Report and Presentation Deck HERE at NetworkWeaver and HERE at Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies

This resource explores:

  • What are movements?
  • What is their relevance in social change?
  • What are some of their defining features?
  • How do they differ from programs or collective impact?

Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies (RNP) supports ideas, individuals and institutions doing ground-breaking work that enables a strong samaaj (society). The areas of work constitute a wide range spanning Access to Justice to Water. RNP has identified Active Citizenship, Climate and Biodiversity and Young Men and Boys as priorities.


Kapil Dawda is the Co-Initiator of the Wellbeing Movement, a Team Member at Viridus Social Impact Solutions and an active member of the Weaving Lab and Presencing communities. He is keen on tapping into the power of many to enable everyone, especially youth and children, to lead thriving lives

Originally published at Rohini Nilekani Philanthropies