Neil Hawkins

Interview with Neil Hawkins, who has been CSO and Corporate VP, Dow Chemical (2008-2018)

Board Member and frequently Board Officer: The Arc of the United States, The Nature Conservancy (Michigan), Purple Rose Theatre Company, Chippewa Nature Center, Little Forks Conservancy, Midland Area Community Foundation, and Erb Family Foundation.

Choosing the right board: What are the three most important considerations?

Given that this is an “extra,” it is important to pick something you are passionate about, has some alignment with your current work, and has a track record of impact in your area of interest.   An NGO Board that has a track record is best for your first foray into board leadership.

The benefits of serving: What makes it worth it?

If you pick the right organization, you can feel the impacts much more directly and see your role in helping deliver them.  Sometimes, in large companies, it is harder to see your personal impact.  In many NGOs, the impact is more up close and personal, and this can be highly motivating!

Getting off to a good start: What are three important things to do in your first several months on the board?

Listen a lot.  Too many corporate people jump in too fast and think they can fix things.  Actually listening to the NGO leadership and other board members is probably something you should actively practice in your first six months, and maybe even a year.  Get in the habit of listening!

Participating meaningfully and productively: What should you do to make the experience worthwhile for you and for the organization?

Approach the board role from the point of view of wanting to help the organization deliver more impact.  And come into it with self awareness of your strengths, and the areas you would like to develop more.  But be mindful of the organization’s needs first, and then your development needs second.

Serving in a leadership position: What are two or three things to consider when deciding about serving as a board officer or committee chair?

Try not to be an officer in your first year unless it is an emergency that only you can fill.  Per my earlier recommendation, try to spend the first 6-12 months listening and learning.  Being an officer puts you right on the stage to perform and make decisions.

What do you wish someone had told you when you were joining a nonprofit board?

So much of the existence of nonprofits revolves around fundraising.  These nonprofits have a product they are producing, but they cannot continue unless they can keep the lights on and have the people paid.  Similar to companies, which must make profit to survive.  But often in nonprofits, it is more acute and becomes all encompassing.  Help your nonprofits have an appropriate rainy day fund to keep the lights on for the bad times.


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