Each year the Sears-Roebuck Foundation, in Chicago, chooses the causes it will support from its endowment ($4,262,000 last January). It identifies these causes itself, rather than by soliciting grant proposals, as many other foundations do.
This year the beneficiaries of Sears grants are academically talented and highly motivated high school students preparing for college; women attending graduate business schools to prepare themselves for management positions; ''juniors'' and ''seniors'' involved in an intergenerational dialogues program to correct negative stereotypes about age; and certain private colleges and universities.
When Sears has chosen its objectives, it finds a national organization or agency already working in the field, confers with it about the most cost-effective ways to achieve Sears' goals, and works jointly with it to develop an appropriate program.
The cooperating organization for the college preparation of talented minority youngsters is A Better Chance Inc., in Boston. ABC places youngsters in 24 selected public schools and 143 private schools where the quality of instruction will help them qualify for college admission. ABC receives funding from several hundred private and corporate foundations, of which Sears is a large contributor , though not among the top 10. Sears gives up to $34,000 a year for three years of scholarships.
The recipients of these scholarships have come from Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Los Angeles, Nashville, Oakland, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh. The secondary schools these scholars attend match Sears grants on a 3-to-1 basis. Students' families are expected to help with personal expenses as much as they can.
Any American woman admitted to a graduate business school accredited by the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business can apply for a loan of up to $5,000 for a two-year period if she needs financial help. Sears has provided and Professional Women's Foundation in Washington, D.C., the sponsoring organization Sears selected.
To increase communication and understanding among generations, Sears has allocated $90,000 this year for a program that consists of an educational support kit and three film vignettes designed for viewing in sequence in classrooms of students aged 9 to 11. Older volunteers act as role models for the students.
Don McNeill narrated the films. The first vignette, ''More Than a Memory,'' shows young viewers that many of their own childhood experiences were shared by today's older people when they themselves were children. The second film, ''The Gift of Time,'' shows how the feelings and needs of old and young are often quite similar and dramatizes the willingness of older people - especially when teamed with youngsters - to give their time and know-how to help solve problems. ''To Find a Friend,'' the third of the series, draws the generations together across six decades and shows how friendships are formed that bridge this gap.
Three organizations cooperate with Sears in the intergenerational dialogues program: The National Retired Teachers Association and American Association of Retired Persons, both in Washington, D.C., and the Ethel Percy Andrus Gerontology Center at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
About 1,100 private colleges and universities receive unrestricted grants from Sears for areas of need identified by their administrators. The unrestricted grants total about $1.5 million this year. Recipient institutions are not required to report on how they actually use the money for which they have applied.
Sears' Minority Achievement Program was started to help post-secondary institutions meet the needs of minority students and to prepare faculty and institutions to aid and encourage them in reaching their educational goals. Sears and the cooperating organization, the Association of American Colleges, recognize that progress has been made, but this year they will continue their support of such programs with semiannual grants totalling $100,000.
Sears budgets about $300,000 each school year for Officer Friendly program guides and materials used by law enforcement agencies and schools across the nation. Grants from eligible communities range from $300 to more than $26,000. This program is administered by local Sears-Roebuck Foundation area representatives.
The Public Broadcasting Service program ''Mister Rogers' Neighborhood'' is partly funded by Sears. Originally the foundation provided funds for three weeks of programming, with special themes and three nighttime specials for parents.During the theme weeks, Mister Rogers addressed a single issue - divorce , competition, going to school - each day of the five the program was televised. The specials for parents dealt with the same subjects. Parents around the country wrote some 16,000 letters of thanks for the special on going to school.
The foundation also maintains a film library, which produces and distributes educational films on art appreciation, aging, distributive education, and other subjects.
The Sears-Roebuck Foundation started as an Agricultural Foundation in 1923. Its first project, the Farm Information Service, fielded questions that poured in from farmers all over the country. The foundation had to add staff, organize a library of farm publications, and create a network of agricultural college specialists to answer the questions.
In the late '30s, Sears changed its emphasis to keep pace with the increasing urbanization of the population. The Agricultural Foundation was liquidated, and in 1941 the Sears-Roebuck Foundation was incorporated, with charitable, scientific, and educational programs among its objectives.