These are tough times for many nonprofit organizations in Minnesota and across the nation. A dent in corporate profits, wealth that evaporated with the downturn in the market, and government cutbacks have meant less money for nonprofits.

Helping these organizations squeeze the most out of every available dollar is the goal of an unusual $2.5 million gift from Target Corp. to the Center for Nonprofit Management at the University of St. Thomas.

It’s not unusual that Target gave St. Thomas a gift. The Minneapolis-based company has a long history of support for nonprofit organizations and gives back more than $2 million a week to communities through grants and special programs.

And it’s not unusual for St. Thomas’ Center for Nonprofit Management to help nonprofits meet community needs as effectively as possible. That has been the center’s goal for 12 years.

What’s unusual is the partnership between Target and St. Thomas. This was more than a company handing a college a check and a handshake. Last year, Target and St. Thomas employees worked together to design and present a series of programs for nonprofit organizations in New York, Chicago and the Appalachian-foothill community of Berea, Ky., home to many emerging entrepreneurial, public-service programs.

“This is an example of a growing form of corporate sponsorship in which companies support nonprofits that share similar values or common goals,” explained Patricia Wilder, director of the Center for Nonprofit Management, part of St. Thomas’ College of Business.

“Another trend is that companies are becoming more involved with the nonprofits they support,” Wilder added. “They don’t want to just write out a check and say, ‘Here, take the money.’ They want to and share their employees’ time and talent.”

The arrangement can have benefits for both the corporation and the nonprofit. People might feel good about shopping at a store when they find out it supports a particular nonprofit cause, and the nonprofit can benefit from the exposure provided by the company.

“In our case, Target gave us the funding, but Target employees also helped us with marketing, advertising, contacts and presenting the programs,” Wilder said. “They were great to work with.”

Helping St. Thomas help other nonprofits also fits with Target’s philosophy.

“Target Corporation has a long history of support for nonprofit organizations,” explained Laysha Ward, the company’s vice president of community relations. “In addition to providing critical services, they add to the richness of our communities. We see our support of St. Thomas’ programs as a wise investment and a way to directly nurture the work of the nonprofit sector.”

The Center for Nonprofit Management is receiving the $2.5 million Target gift over five years. About half is used to support the center’s operations in Minnesota, and the other half supports programs in other states.

This past year about 400 managers of nonprofits attended either a seminar on “branding” or a mini-MBA program that were offered in New York, Chicago and Berea. The center is planning to offer the two programs again this fall, but this time in Los Angeles and Dallas. Target’s employees again will help with the programs, and their grant again will help cover participants’ tuition costs.

In all the communities there was a similar range of nonprofit organizations represented in the classes, Wilder said. Participants came from the fields of housing, food programs, early childhood centers, health clinics, the arts, churches, job creation and community development.

Back in Minnesota, the center serves about 2,000 participants each year. It offers more than 200 classes annually for managers and employees of nonprofit organizations.

One of the center’s most popular offerings is its Mini-MBA for Nonprofit Organizations. Board governance classes also are in high demand. With more than 40,000 people serving on nonprofit boards in Minnesota, learning nonprofit finance and other aspects of nonprofit governance is essential.

The university, which historically has encouraged a commitment to community service, has many alumni who take advantage of these Center for Nonprofit Management classes.

The center also is home to an Institute for Executive Director Leadership, now in its fourth year; a Community Leadership Institute, which is a partnership with the Metropolitan Alliance for Community Centers and the Minneapolis Neighborhood Revitalization Program; and an Institute for Ministry Leaders, which delivers nonprofit management education to those in church ministry and other faith-based nonprofit organizations.

The center’s programs and classes are taught by a faculty of more than 90 individuals who have extensive expertise in the nonprofit field.

Target and St. Thomas employees pooled their talents last year to present seminars and mini-MBA programs in New York, Chicago and Kentucky. Pictured at a seminar held at the National Arts Club in New York last year were, from the left: Chuck Swenson, Target; Olympic medal winner Scott Hamilton; Heather Faulkner, Laysha Ward and Katie Heinze, all of Target; Phil McCarty, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital; and Patricia Wilder and Christine Wolf of St. Thomas’ Center for Nonprofit Management.