Hunger Free Oklahoma: Leveraging Continuous Learning & Improvement

Written by Eugenia Chow from Hunger Free Oklahoma in partnership with ImpactTulsa.

TULSA, OK – When it comes to workplace jargon, ‘continuous learning and improvement’ is tossed around frequently. But what does it mean and what does it look like in action? 

What is CLI?

Continuous learning and improvement (CLI) is an iterative approach to improvement rooted in data, observation, and equity. Organized around eight key stages, the CLI process uses data to refine a problem, set goals, and implement small changes to determine what’s successful and can be scaled.


The Continuous Learning and Improvement process is illustrated in a cycle.

The nonprofit sector is anything but static and as a cornerstone of any high-functioning nonprofit, we should always prioritize ongoing learning and improvement.

Hunger Free Oklahoma and ImpactTulsa

Hunger Free Oklahoma and ImpactTulsa Partnership

To that end, Hunger Free Oklahoma eagerly jumped at the chance to participate in a continuous learning and improvement (CLI) opportunity, facilitated by ImpactTulsa. With a team of five staff members representing multiple departments. These past six months have brought a range of new learnings for our organization.

The ImpactTulsa team members who supported LIFT for Hunger Free Oklahoma.

Prioritizing Deviations

It should come as no surprise that the pandemic has affected Oklahomans in more ways than one. With thousands of people out-of-work and more families than ever struggling to pay for basic needs, Hunger Free Oklahoma launched Oklahoma’s first Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) application hotline in May 2020 to help eligible individuals apply for SNAP benefits over the phone. 

Today, the SNAP application hotline remains one of our largest and most robust programs having submitted over 13K applications and bringing in an estimated $6.3M in benefits to Oklahoma families in need. As with any large-scale program, there are always processes and outcomes to improve. 

When it came to selecting a problem, our team focused on SNAP, creating a menu of options and prioritizing a problem of practice based on:

  • Available data,
  • What was within our control, and
  • Populations affected

After assessing trends in our quantitative and qualitative data, our team saw that Latine applicants were denied at a higher rate for SNAP compared to other racial groups. 

Unpacking the CLI Process

As the first step to process improvement, our team needed to map out how clients applied for SNAP through the hotline. By visually laying out the SNAP application process everyone was able to gain a better understanding of the current workflow.

Over the course of several weeks, our team continued to narrow our focus and isolate underlying causes. Using a fishbone diagram1, we identified possible causes of the problem by sorting factors into useful categories. Ultimately, we narrowed down the potential factors (access, stigma, language barriers, etc.) for why Hispanic applications were being denied at a higher rate compared to other races.

Example fishbone diagram used in Continuous Learning and Improvement practices.

To prioritize the factors to validate while thinking through the capacity lens of staff and SNAP end users, we asked ourselves:

  • What is within our locus of control?
  • Which factors (if proven) are likely to impact the greatest number of Hispanic applicants?
  • Are there particular factors that align with our organizational values?
  • Who would be most/least burdened by validating the factor?
  • Are there factors that are connected in a way where it makes sense to first validate one before moving forward with the others?
  • Are there factors that are connected in a way where we could likely create a factor validation plan that covers more than one factor?

Ultimately, we designed a survey to validate our factors. The survey was translated into Spanish and English and sent to SNAP applicants who have applied through the hotline within the past year. While we received over a hundred responses, it quickly became apparent that the results did not provide a sufficient sample size to draw conclusions from, about our target demographic: denied Hispanic applicants. 

Hunger Free Oklahoma team members work through understanding how to document relevant information for a PDSA.

Back to the Drawing Board

For our team, CLI wasn’t a linear process. When it became apparent that our survey didn’t yield expected results, we paused to reevaluate. Luckily, due to the flexible nature of the process, we were not locked into our original problem of practice. Rather than proceeding with our initial problem statement, our team shifted focus to really nail down the crux of the issue – the lack of a regular, ongoing SNAP application feedback. We realized a one-time survey gave us a limited snapshot of information but to gain valuable insights over time, what we really needed was continuous client input. 

During this second time around, our team was able to navigate through determining underlying causes and generating a solution. The data collected in our original survey proved useful in guiding where our gaps were and what questions we’d want to ask in a continuous feedback survey. While our time with ImpactTulsa concluded before we were able to implement a full Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) cycle, we plan to carry forward this new change idea with the goal of obtaining feedback from at least 15% of all denied applicants, across all racial groups, who have applied within the last 12 months through the SNAP hotline by March 2023.  

Lessons Learned

  • Narrowing and refining the problem your team wants to focus on is key. If a problem is too broad, it can be overwhelming to identify change ideas that make a meaningful impact. 
  • CLI isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution. Instead, the cycle leaves ample room to revisit stages as needed.
  • When forming a team, include staff across multiple departments or teams. Even if the problem isn’t within their main workstream, they can offer a fresh perspective, provide valuable feedback, and help connect the dots.
  • Adapt the tools given to fit your needs. Some tools didn’t make sense in the context of our specific problem and organization, so we reworded and created alternative tools that worked for us.
  • Give yourself grace. It’s good to have a timeline but factors outside your control may delay or push your timeline back.

Moving Forward

Our recommendations are two-fold: short- and long-term. In the short-term, we anticipate rolling out CLI in phases with our CLI team acting as consultants to our team at large. We hope to train current and future staff on the CLI process and hone in on no more than one major organizational CLI process per year. 

In the long-term, we hope to hire a dedicated full-time staff member whose sole focus is continuous improvement. With major project initiatives, we plan to look at them through a CLI lens, thus, fully integrating CLI into our organizational work. 

Now that we’ve presented to our leadership team, our (the CLI committee) next steps are to finalize the CLI handbook and have it ready for review in January 2023. The leadership team will review and provide feedback by the end of February. Based on that feedback, the CLI committee will make edits/adjustments as needed. In addition, we will work with the leadership team to determine CLI priorities and implementation for the calendar year. After this, we plan to introduce CLI to our entire staff after March 2023 although the date is to be determined. 

The Bottom Line

Overall, CLI challenged our team to slow down, assess disparities, and integrate perspectives from various stakeholders. 

I can truly say that participating in this process was a tremendous value add both personally and professionally. Making small tweaks on a consistent basis is much more manageable time and effort-wise than overhauling everything all at once. Thanks to individualized coaching from the ImpactTulsa team and a new suite of tools to carry our work forward, I’m looking forward to embedding these learnings into my day-to-day work.

Are you curious about CLI?

Continuous learning and improvement might be right for you, if you want to:

  • Integrate racial equity into your work
  • Identify and address gaps to continuously improve your programs
  • Learn techniques for fostering a culture of learning within your organization

If you’d like to learn more about the LIFT program with ImpactTulsa, please visit our website here.