Laysha Ward has been photographed in glamorous gowns at posh events -- President Obama's inauguration included. On this morning, though, she's dressed in khakis, running shoes and a red T-shirt emblazoned with the familiar Target bull's-eye logo, blending in with an army of red tees on the backs of 200 volunteers from Target's downtown Minneapolis headquarters.

Ward was at Bancroft Elementary School in south Minneapolis, overseeing one of the school library makeovers that have become a hallmark of Target Corporation's philanthropy. As president of Target Foundation, the largest corporate grantmaker based in Minnesota, she is in charge of giving away about $3 million a week nationwide in funding, products and in-kind donations. In her dual role as head of the company's community-relations department, she also is one of its most prominent public faces.

At this moment, that face was close to the ground, eye-level with a couple of dozen third-graders perched on new neon-hued mini-beanbag chairs.

"What do you like to read? How about you?" she said. "Let's make some noise in the library!"

The library makeover at Bancroft may not have had the star power that a similar one in Washington, D.C., had -- for that one, held during Inauguration Week, Usher and Tobey "Spider-Man" Maguire showed up -- but Ward, with help from a human-sized Bullseye the Dog mascot, seemed sufficiently bright and shiny to enthrall the kids.

Representing a company known for its brilliant, relentlessly unified branding success, Ward's personal brand is "lead with the head, warm with the heart." It also appears to be a winner.

Bernadeia Johnson, who will become Minneapolis schools superintendent in July, met Ward a few weeks ago. They spent a day together last week, with Ward "shadowing" Johnson as she prepares for her new job.

"Right away she connects with people on a personal level," Johnson said. "She got right down on the floor with those kids, and I'll bet they remember the lady in the Target shirt who took an interest in them."

Ward is the first Target staff member to serve on the bipartisan Corporation for National Community Service, the country's largest grantmaker, to which she was appointed by President George W. Bush.

She is also on the boards of Denny's Corp., the Tiger Woods Learning Center and the Executive Leadership Council (ELC), a national association of African-American executives.

"Laysha can do what a lot of people can't -- meet with her CEO at 9 and at 9:30 be talking to a 5-year-old," said fellow ELC board member Lawrence Drake. "She's very thoughtful and focused, and also very direct. When she speaks, people listen and her comments can often give you pause."

Target's education funding programs also involve its customers, who can designate which school will benefit from purchases charged on their Target card, one of the best examples of what has been called "self-interested giving."

Bill King, who heads the Minnesota Council on Foundations, says all philanthropy has been headed in that direction. "It's not just about building the brand, but finding that sweet spot of matching community need and expertise, to have the most impact and make sure the dollars are used wisely," he said.

As co-founder of the Washington, D.C.-based foundation Heart of America, a partner in the library makeover program, Angie Halamandaris has said Ward "walks the talk."

"It's just her makeup," she said. "But she also understands that Target is a business and that it's going to help the company."

Raised to give back

Ward was raised in Fountain City, Ind., a small town on the Ohio border with a historical claim to fame: It was a key stop on the Underground Railroad. Her father, a fireman, and her mother, who was involved in social work, had a "to whom much is given, much is expected" approach to raising children, she said. "They taught me that you have to give back regardless of your own socioeconomic situation."

Ward "fell in love with the business of retail" in the early 1990s on the floor at Marshall Field's in Chicago, selling everything from women's better sportswear to lingerie to men's ties.

In 1993, she moved into community relations, "but that work I did in the stores still informs everything I do."

Giving focus: K-12

Sifting through the thousands of funding requests Target receives every year and deciding which ones to grant is one of the weightiest parts of Ward's job. She has a method.

"You have to start with a solid strategy, an understanding of who you are and how you can make the most impact. K-12 education is our centerpiece, the filter through which we assess a lot of requests," she said. "We focus on connecting social services, the arts and volunteerism to education for greater impact."

As Target's growth has spread to 1,700 stores nationwide, so has its giving; Minnesota receives a lower percentage of the total than it used to. But Ward says the Twin Cities headquarters market still receives "a large percentage" -- $27 million of the $187 million the foundation gave away in 2009.

Another part of her strategy is to build a team with varied backgrounds, including former teachers, social-service and arts administrators, and financial experts.

Ward also has answers for such classic arguments as "How can you give money to the arts when children are starving?"

"We don't believe it's an either-or," she said. "Students have many basic needs, and the needs of the mind should be met in the same manner we provide food and shelter."

Taking a step forward

Ward is precise when she talks, using carefully crafted, safe phrases, which can make her appear overly guarded. Yet she radiates a genuine warmth and sincerity. As she leans in to make a point, the orator in her shines through again, even though she's speaking to an audience of one.

"There is an education crisis in America," she said. "One in three kids today will not graduate from high school. It's even worse for African-American and Hispanic kids -- half won't. The stakes are high."

When asked to assess the evolution of equality in the workplace for people of color, Ward pauses.

"We've made progress," she said. "I was blessed to have for a mentor Mrs. Coretta Scott King, who advocated 'progress, not perfection.' It's about taking a step forward."

As for being someone young girls can look up to, "My hope is it's not just about being a role model for young girls," she said. "I hope that anyone can be inspired by any Target team member who's authentic. Beyond black and white, there's red."

Kristin Tillotson • 612-673-7046