Trish Karter is president and CEO of Boston, MA-based Dancing Deer Baking Company and a 2005 Winning Workplaces/FORTUNE Small Business Best Boss. In this interview she discusses how the company’s Sweet Home Product line serves a specific philanthropic need and reinforces the organization’s underlying values.

Dancing Deer was incorporated in 1994. How soon after its founding did a focus on philanthropy develop?
From the beginning we had environmental objectives and were also focused on worker participation in ownership. It was an underlying theme in our business philosophy.

Philanthropy became more important in 2000 when I bought out my partners and assumed the roles of CEO and majority stockholder. That’s when I pushed my thinking harder about what I wanted to accomplish with the company beyond economic survival and wealth creation. It had always been important to me to make our work more meaningful than just pushing cookies out the door, but it took on new meaning having been through such a struggle to stay upright. This focus took another step up in 2002, when we started the Sweet Home Product line.

Let’s talk about the Sweet Home Product line. Through the project, 35 percent of the retail price of each order goes to help homeless families find jobs and move into homes of their own. How did you get involved with the Boston-based One Family organization to make the project a reality?
They approached us. They were looking for a house-shaped cookie as a gimmick and a thank-you promotion. They had used lapel pins in the past and wanted something different, fun and representative of their work. It started out with this simple idea, but through our discussions, I thought there was something bigger here. I thought One Family’s mission to end homelessness was compatible with our mission to do good in the world. That ties in with our employee base at our location in a low-income area.

Dancing Deer Baking Co.My concept was to focus our philanthropy efforts to be more meaningful, to save ourselves some time and to design something to enhance our marketing strategy. The Sweet Home line made an impact on our branding, but I didn’t expect it to have such a strong visceral impact on people.

How much money has gone to this cause and how many families have benefited from the proceeds from Sweet Home purchases?
In 2005 we donated $30,000 to One Family (plus all of our other donations and in-kind activities). This was used to fund three One Family scholars, which are usually homeless or formerly homeless women with children who are looking to better their career opportunities and achieve financial independence.

In the last fiscal year, our sales were $5.9 million. We’re at $7.6 million this fiscal year. When I talk to people in other companies, I’m interested in what they’re doing to give back relative to their total profits. When you have large corporations writing big checks, the numbers stand out and it’s impressive – a lot of good is being done. But companies who are giving and doing more relative to their profits, percentage-wise, are really impressive. If other companies did what we do on a similar percentage basis, the world would be turned upside down!

As employees are stakeholders in the profitability of Dancing Deer, what do they bring to the table in terms of the philanthropy focus or other ideas for giving something back?
We have a lot of staff involvement, both in the Sweet Home line and in other projects – many of which are local, like neighborhood clean-ups. All the people that we’ve brought on have an understanding of what we’re about. In fact, many come because they’re attracted to what we do to give something back through our work. It takes everyone here to get a Sweet Home Product out the door.

Every year we do something to promote the Sweet Home line around the holidays. Last year our theme was “personal philanthropy” – the practice of getting out there, making connections with people and doing something measurably good on a person-to-person level, versus just writing checks. All of our employees participated in a tour of 23 of the 25 homeless family shelters here in Boston. Our staff brought pre-made gingerbread houses along with cookies, decorations and good will to these shelters and stayed with residents for the evening. Every person visited at least one shelter; I did 13 myself (some with my own children). In total, we made contact with over 1,100 residents. It reinforced our values and helped build community both internally and externally. We all know that giving back is rewarding; we were moved by how powerful this particular kind was.