He will join in March to replace Dame Clare Tickell, who left Action for Children last month to become chief executive of the housing association Hanover.
Hawkhead, who was given a knighthood for services to environmental regeneration in 2011, has been at Groundwork for 17 years.
John O’Brien, chair of Action for Children, said Hawkhead had an "exceptional set of achievements to his name".
"Of course, he has a tough act to follow," he said. "Dame Clare Tickell has successfully navigated Action for Children through a change of government and some of the most turbulent times UK charities have ever faced, and we now support more than 250,000 people through 650 projects. But I know that he relishes the challenge and is committed to taking Action for Children from strength to strength."
Hawkhead said he was honoured to join the charity. "At a time when the pressures on those children, young people and their families have rarely been greater, the work that Action for Children staff and volunteers carry out is needed more than ever," he said.
Jacob Tas, deputy chief executive and executive director of operations, will be acting chief executive in the interim.