For her new job at the Birmingham Foundation, Michelle Figlar is relocating from an office in a gleaming Downtown skyscraper to digs in Knoxville, a low-income community in the city’s Hilltop section.

It’s a logical career step, says Figlar.

She’s leaving her role as vice president of learning for The Heinz Endowments — the city’s second-largest philanthropy with assets topping $2 billion — to take the helm of a much smaller foundation that funds child care, education, violence prevention, health, wellness and other initiatives in the Hilltop.

The south city neighborhoods of Allentown, Arlington, Beltzhoover, Bon Air, Carrick, Knoxville, Mount Oliver, Mount Washington, South Side and St. Clair — which collectively compose the Hilltop — thrived in the first half of the 20th century when many of its middle-class families earned a living from the city’s steel mills and mom-and-pop shops filled the area’s main streets.

But as Pittsburgh’s economic base shifted in recent decades, the population in those neighborhoods plummeted while unemployment and crime escalated.

“Sadly, all we hear about in these places is the shootings and violence,” says Figlar. “And there is so much good happening; hopefully, we can change the news cycle and not talk about the shootings every day.”

Figlar succeeds Mark Bibro, who retired after 22 years at the Birmingham Foundation, including 14 as its executive director.

Michelle Figlar plays with children at the Birmingham Foundation.
Michelle Figlar, executive director of the Birmingham Foundation, takes a break from her workday to play with the daughter of a staff member at Hilltop Family Care Connection. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

Figlar joined the foundation’s board in 2015 and applied for the executive director’s job because she wanted to “lead a foundation where I can get up every day … and wrap my arms around the kids in the Hilltop and support them as much as I can.”

The position allows her to continue partnering with philanthropies, educators and government leaders she’s worked with for years, says Figlar, 55.

The Hazelwood native holds a bachelor’s degree in child development from the University of Pittsburgh, and a master’s in early childhood special education from Kent State University. Early in her career, she was a preschool teacher and worked for Head Start.

“I don’t know how many people get to go from being a preschool teacher to leading a foundation totally focused on the work I love,” she says.

Before joining The Heinz Endowments in 2016, Figlar served for a year as deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning. Before that, she spent nearly a decade as executive director of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, now known as Trying Together.

At the Endowments, she oversaw nearly $30 million in grants distributed annually for education and child development initiatives. Her budget at the Birmingham Foundation is a fraction of that. Its annual grantmaking in the fiscal year 2019 was around $1.3 million, according to its last available federal tax return. Assets totaled about $20 million according to its 2020 audit.

“We’re small but mighty,” says Figlar.

The foundation was created in 1996 from the proceeds of the sale of the South Side Hospital to UPMC for $17 million. Its mission initially was focused on community health, mainly in the South Side, but through a recent strategic planning process, the board decided to focus more on programs that provide social and emotional support for Hilltop families.

Among the organizations it funds are UPMC’s Family Care Connection in Mount Oliver, whose services include a pediatric clinic, education programs for parents and young children and home visits. Another grantee, Voices Against Violence, based in Beltzhoover, provides mentoring and after-school and summer activities for at-risk youth and adults. The foundation’s largest grantee, The Brashear Association in Knoxville, offers after-school programs, senior citizen initiatives, a food pantry and other services.

Michelle Figlar.
Michelle Figlar, executive director of the Birmingham Foundation, previously served as vice president of learning for The Heinz Endowments. Photo by Sebastian Foltz.

“These organizations are committed to children and families that live in the neighborhoods,” says Figlar.

The foundation recently relocated from the South Side to a building The Brashear Association occupies on Brownsville Road.

“That’s an exciting development and is an appropriate evolution of seeing where the community interests really are,” says Mary Phan-Gruber, the first executive director of the foundation who became chief executive of the Jefferson Regional Foundation.

With the Birmingham Foundation’s recent focus on youth and early childhood, “Michelle is the perfect person to lead it,” Phan-Gruber says.

Married with two children, Figlar is currently working remotely on a doctorate in organizational leadership at Vanderbilt University.

“At the beginning of Covid, I couldn’t watch any more TV so I went back to school,” she says.

Her classmates, scattered across the country, had never heard of The Heinz Endowments. But when the Pittsburgh Steelers announced a deal in July to change the name of Heinz Field to Acrisure Stadium, they flooded Figlar with inquiries about whether she could prevent the switch. She had to explain that the Heinz family — which oversees the Endowments — hasn’t managed the ketchup and condiments business for decades.

Through October, Figlar will continue to work one day a week at the Endowments to wrap up her projects.

André Heinz, chair of The Heinz Endowments, said in a statement that Figlar “has earned deserved recognition for ways that she has championed the needs of early childhood education and development and the well-being of families.”

Joyce Gannon is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer.