The nation’s oldest and largest voluntary health organization, the American Heart Association works to prevent heart disease and stroke. AHA advocates good cardiovascular health by promoting positive behaviors, nutritious eating habits, and a healthy lifestyle. The organization also funds research and professional education programs. 

Challenge: The AHA wanted to eliminate redundant learning programs and reduce costs while increasing standardized, world-class education to 2,700+ employees across the country.  

Solution: The AHA Executive Leadership Cabinet and Winning with Talent Taskforce voted to create the American Heart University (AHU), hire a Dean and begin building a world-class corporate university. The AHU opted to offer SkillSoft and AHA custom courses, Books24x7 assets, and Leadership Development Channel videos. The University consists of 19 Schools of Learning organized around AHA’s individual contributor and leadership competencies.

Results: The AHA has saved millions of dollars since the launch of the university in 2008. The savings is both in training and operational expenses but not at the lack of participation…the AHU has reached the remarkable level of having 100% staff enrolled in at least four online courses.

American Heart University Is Founded

When AHU’s founding Dean, Derek Cunard joined American Heart Association in late 2007, each region (affiliate) had its own training and development department. “Although everyone was doing some really great stuff, training was fragmented and we had nothing online. To take a course, there were CDs sent to staff who would then watch the course and send the learning package back…it did not satisfy “just in time” learning. When I was recruited to build the AHU, the goal was to bring together all the affiliates, trainers, courses and resources…our team has been successful in doing just that,” he said. Today, Cunard leads the American Heart University, which has quickly become the AHA’s centralized resource for training and development.

The American Heart Association’s “Winning with Talent” task force examined the organization’s training and development resources and decided to create a university. Although corporate universities were thriving—it hadn’t really been done with a nonprofit of our size and there was literally no one to benchmark,” Cunard said.

Cunard said he knew immediately he wanted to bring SkillSoft to the AHA. “I’d implemented SkillSoft courses in Hong Kong for a major financial corporate university that served 13 countries and about 50,000 employees—I knew that it would work on a smaller scale if we sprinkled in AHA custom content developed in-house, and augment those resources with any face-to-face workshops we offered.”

AHA’s Ongoing Culture of Education

“AHA is all about education—we have a bold mission and amazing goals. Our staff realize the importance of ongoing education—that mentality was already here when I arrived,” said AHU founding Dean Derek Cunard. He began meeting with executives, managers, and staff to select and package online courses organized around AHA’s competencies. His goal was to support both personal and professional development and provide learning that supported a career path at the AHA. Once he had organized the course pack­ages and created the 19 schools, he got buy-in from the new university governing body called AHU’s Executive Council.

Division heads serve as deans for each of the University’s 19 schools, focused on different functional areas and competencies within AHA. “We wanted to give people something with which they’re familiar,” Cunard said. “We’ve got Schools of Advocacy, Fundraising, Legal, Volunteer Management…depending on where you work, you can attend courses in those schools.”

Ensuring Wide-Spread Employee Adoption of AHU

When AHA launched the American Heart University, Dean Derek Cunard went on the road for a series of town-hall meetings at various AHA locations nationwide. The “Dean Road Show” as it was called because of his high-energy “pep rally” approach illustrated to staff how to best use AHU’s SkillPort platform, what the AHU’s various schools included and exactly what the university meant to them. “I told them, ‘you know this dean because they’re in charge of your area, and they’ve chosen some great courses for you.’ That helped people feel engaged not just with their own areas, but also with other schools of learning…. There were plenty of new students excited to explore other areas they might not have ever been exposed to!”

Cunard challenged AHA staff to immediately go online and become students—he had laptops set up around the room at each town hall meeting. “Once people went online, they realized it wasn’t difficult,” Cunard said. Most people enrolled in courses right away. “Some enrolled in 10 or 15 courses, others started off with one or two – it was mind-blowing to see the response. I remember thinking after each road-show that I hope the SkillPort servers can take all the immediate traffic… they never faltered once” Cunard said.

Cunard’s personal mission to bring AHU to each and every staff member has paid off with an astonishing 100% participation rate. Every AHA employee has taken at least four courses through SkillPort. New staff members are enrolled on their first day of employ­ment utilizing a “New Employee Journal” and assigned a blend of mandatory compliance courses and other courses that support AHA’s competencies and introduce our culture. “This immediate introduction to our organization’s rich history and extraordinary culture of dedicated leadership and motivated staff enables our newest talent to discover the heart and soul of the American Heart Association,” said Cunard.

Short, Engaging Courses

When AHU migrated to the SkillPort LMS in February 2011, Cunard said the University’s leadership agreed to offer only courses of one hour or less in duration. “We focused on the new one-hour courses SkillSoft is developing and now offering—they are amazing,” said Cunard. AHU also uses the Challenge Series and Business Impact Series tools especially with leadership to supplement face-to-face workshops. Cunard encourages people to use these short, scenario-based exercises as meeting starters or team activities.


AHU has two interactive multi-media designers who develop courses using a third-party authoring tool that allows them to insert Flash and video. “Our custom content runs perfectly in SkillPort and has become a critical part of our online of­ferings,” Cunard said.

Keeping Learning and the AHU at the Forefront

The AHU team makes a point of constantly marketing its learning program and pointing out new courses. Their diligence has prompted more than 50,000 course enrollments with an 80 percent completion rate—a remarkable achievement (as of January 2011).

In May 2011, Cunard spoke at Perspectives, SkillSoft’s annual user conference—in his presentation, he emphasized that AHA’s leadership and staff have truly embraced and supported the university. “They’ve pushed us forward to make it better. That’s one of the reasons we switched to SkillPort—our old LMS was clunky and threatened our success,” he said.

“To have a successful learning initiative within an organization, you absolutely need a team of people passionate about adult learning who see the importance of marketing it with flair—that’s more than just sending an email out,” Cunard explained. For one marketing effort, the team developed a Flash video for the AHU home page encouraging learners to spend the summer with AHU. The summer camp-themed video promoted new courses in various schools and increased course enrollments and completions by thousands in a two month period.

These types of award-winning marketing efforts have kept the university and its as­sets visible and thriving. When questions or business issues arise, “AHA leaders will ask ‘have we looked to the university to see if there’s an asset that can help us find a solution?’” Cunard said.

Significant Organizational Savings

The AHA has estimated that it saves at least $800,000 annually through AHU. In 2010, the university implemented SkillSoft’s suite of Microsoft Office courses and eliminated live MS help desk support, resulting in an estimated $2 million gross savings. Cunard said directing AHA staff to assets on particular topics, such as Outlook, rather than calling the help desk with questions has not only saved the organization money, but increased staff satisfaction with technology support.

Expanding AHU’s Learning Audience

The American Heart Association recently launched a pilot program through the AHU for volunteers. “We rolled out some AHA custom courses that would benefit an AHA volunteer—we’ve created a partition so they have their own little piece of the university and it’s working out splendidly,” said Cunard. The pilot program includes several hundred volunteers—a diverse group including executives from Fortune 500 companies, cardiologists, and others who have dedicated significant time and energy to the AHA cause.

The volunteers take courses such as AHA’s National Wear Red Day or the Vision for Volunteerism series that focus on recruiting new volunteers, as well as more skill-based courses such as How to Sell a Cause. “We’re following up to see if they’re using it and if it’s meeting their needs,” Cunard said. “We’ll do some surveys and make some changes before launching to a potential audience in the millions.”

“My goal is to have millions of volunteers taking courses—everyone from an elementary school coach who wants to have a great Jump Rope for Heart program to executives speaking at meetings regarding our causes which could potentially bring in new donor dollars,” said Cunard.

But his vision doesn’t stop there. “Right now if you Google stroke education, you’ll come to our website, maybe find a document or video. How cool would it be to have a short formal AHU course on preventing strokes and being able to suggest additional learning in the future?”

Future AHU Social Connections

As Cunard considers ways to expand the university’s reach, he’s exploring options for building on new technologies. “I can’t wait to see how we’re going to incorporate social and mobile into the university and make it even more accessible,” he said.