The honour society

Over a million dollars in annual turnover, six full-time staff, and hundreds of thousands of members – but few students have ever heard of it. Tom Joyner investigates the inscrutable Golden Key.

Over a million dollars in annual turnover, six full-time staff, and hundreds of thousands of members – but few students have ever heard of it. Tom Joyner investigates the inscrutable Golden Key.

In cramped offices in the inner Sydney suburb of Ultimo, the Golden Key International Honour Society’s headquarters for the Asia-Pacific feel more like a family tax accountant or a business startup. Its rooms are on the fourth floor of a shared block on Jones Street, and overlook a Chinese supermarket on one side and a self-storage warehouse on the other. There’s barely enough space for seating in the reception area, and a large collapsible banner emblazoned with the company’s logo leans haphazardly against the front counter.

It’s a far cry from the workspaces of Bank of America, Shell or Lenovo – large corporations with which Golden Key has fostered partnerships over the years – but then again, the Sydney office’s six full-time staff don’t usually expect guests.

For an international organisation with hundreds of thousands of members, surprisingly few people have ever heard of Golden Key. Presenting itself as a philanthropic organisation for high-achieving students, it blurs the lines with its unique business model. Its recruitment practices are misleading and it greatly overstates the benefits for its members.

As an Honi Soit investigation has found, Golden Key signs up new paying members through partnership arrangements with universities. At least one Group of Eight university provides the personal information of thousands of its students to Golden Key without students’ knowledge or consent. The university even mails out letters of invitation on its own official letterhead signed by a senior university administrator.

Honour societies have never held as prominent a place in Australian university life as they have in America. Founded in 1897, Phi Kappa Phi is the most famous example of an American honour society, and describes itself on its website as “a community of scholars and professionals building an enduring legacy for all generations”. Golden Key’s premise isn’t too different: it recruits high-achieving students across 400 university campuses worldwide with the promise of networking events, conferences and “enhancing student opportunities,” in the words of the organisation’s Asia-Pacific director, Joshua Ang.

Roughly 200,000 student Golden Key members are spread across several dozen universities in Australia that host campus chapters, usually comprising a student-run committee – including a student president who controls the chapter’s funding – and an ‘advisor’ on academic staff. The chapter runs networking events, career nights, and workshops. It also engages regularly with its members via email mailouts and Facebook.

The ANU chapter is held to be one of the best in the country by the organisation, and has the awards to prove it. Each year, according to its chapter president and linguistics student, Sarah Heywood, it recruits around 60 to 100 new members.

Students can only join their local chapter if they are formally invited, and must pay a flat, one-off $100 fee. Invitations are sent out, typically in the mail or by email, only to those students the society claims are in the top 15 per cent of their cohort. It’s in this way the society maintains its prestige and exclusivity. Students who have joined often speak of adding a line to their resume as a boon during job interviews.

Documents held by the corporate regulator ASIC show that former ANU Vice-Chancellor and Australian Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, held a senior role with the organisation from around 2001, when he began at the university, up until February 2009.

However, Professor Chubb said his involvement had been peripheral at best. “I do remember the very first time that I went to one of their presentation evenings and I think it went on for hours, I mean literally hours. I remember telling them I wasn’t going to go again if I had to sit there watching hundreds of people go up and get a certificate,” he told Honi.

At one point, Golden Key approached him to join the international board of directors, but nothing ever was set in stone. “I know that they had tried to get me involved more deeply than just being the VC of the university.”

But organisations like Golden Key have been met with suspicion on Australian campuses. Students Honi Soit spoke to, in addition to the hundreds more who left comments on web forums, said they felt initially flattered to receive an invitation, but were wary of the organisation’s initial fee and potential benefits.

Many of those students who joined said they didn’t engage with the society much further than their initial induction, and many soon forgot they had become members, only to be sent another letter of invitation for each subsequent year of their degree asking they pay the $100 joining fee again.

“It’s not always a perfect system,” said Ang, himself a graduate of the Australian Catholic University. Many more students said the society offered them nothing but a barrage of emails advertising discounted goods from corporate sponsors. “Students are able to opt in or out of any correspondence we send out.”

Dr Vinh Lu, a senior lecturer from the ANU College of Business and Economics who is also the university’s on-campus Golden Key ‘advisor’ said he was aware of problems with member engagement, particularly members who sign up once and never interact with the society again. “I’ve been telling the society for the past year,” he said. “I feel that the members are quite disengaged, and this is actually up to the society chapter to run programs and activities that connect their members.”

It’s only a matter of time before Golden Key becomes a more accepted part of campus life, ANU chapter president Sarah Heywood explained. “I think because [Golden Key] is such an unfamiliar concept in Australia, there hasn’t been enough time for people to understand what an honour society does, what the point of it is.”

“There’s this reputation that we [Golden Key] have. But meeting the people who are involved and believe in what Golden Key is doing… really it is that helping bright students achieve their full potential outside of the classroom.”

But it’s not an uncommon criticism that the society is little more than a network of sleek and professional recruiters whose main job is to entice students with the promise of exclusive access to private networking events and scholarships to travel overseas. It’s not far off the mark: heavy PR spin and an expertly honed public image are hallmarks of Golden Key that shroud its business practices.

For such a seemingly large organisation, there is surprisingly little information available online about it. Its website is vague at best, and uses platitudes to describe the “power of knowledge” and “continuum of excellence” in the way a travel company or a life coach might advertise its services.

A read through its Wikipedia page reveals little more, except for a watered-down history of the organisation. But clicking through to the ‘talk’ page – an out-of-view section of a Wikipedia article hosting debate between users on the article itself – unveils much more. “I noticed that this page read like an advert for the organization,” wrote one anonymous user. “I have restored some semblance of ‘journalism’ to it today using previously submitted information.”

“History shows their PR dept can’t keep their hands off it,” wrote another. A third user alleged Golden Key’s own director of operations and membership, Ashlyn Houska, made several edits to the page – including deleting an entire section titled ‘Controversy’ – under an account named ‘AHouska’.

But the ways in which Golden Key obtains student information in its recruitment process raises more questions; both contact details (physical address or email) and academic results to target high-achievers.

“In terms of obviously data privacy, it’s something that is extremely important to Golden Key and the universities that we work with, as it is for this printer,” Ang said. “We’ve had a long-standing relationship with this printer, and so have the universities that we work with. We have a strict confidentiality agreement in place and that kind of covers all of these areas.”

However, a spokesperson confirmed ANU in fact directly provided Golden Key with thousands of students’ personal information, including home address and other contact information, potentially in breach of its own privacy policy.

When asked whether he was aware of such a privacy breach, former Vice-Chancellor Ian Chubb said he wasn’t. “I’d be really very surprised if ANU handed over student information to any group.”

This raises questions of the exact nature of Golden Key’s relationship with other Australian universities. All other universities contacted by Honi Soit, including Western Sydney University and Macquarie University within New South Wales, all denied financial arrangements with Golden Key.

But dozens more, including Australian Catholic University, University of Queensland, Flinders University, Monash University, University of Sydney and La Trobe University have churned out press releases lauding the latest Golden Key event or praising the successes of a campus chapter in the past few years: a presentation of honorary membership to the governor-general, a guest speech from a decorated academic, a student’s award of a scholarship. Ang also denied existence of a financial arrangement with universities.

At ANU, however, much like many universities, students are invited to join the society with personal letters written on official stationery bearing the university’s logo and address from Professor Richard Baker, the Pro Vice-Chancellor of student experience.

In one such letter obtained by Honi Soit, Professor Baker – who was unavailable for interview – reminded the recipient they are not obliged to, but their academic record qualified them to join Golden Key. “It is my pleasure to congratulate you on your excellent academic results. This wonderful achievement makes you eligible to join the Golden Key International Honour Society,” the letter read.

“The letterhead shows the support of the society on campus, similar to any other chapters,” said Vinh Lu, the campus advisor. “For the students it’s an opportunity for them to feel like they develop a sense of identification with an organization with a good purpose.” Ang denied suggestions that an official letter from their university encouraging students to join a private organisation might be misleading.

Selwyn Cornish, Lu’s predecessor in the campus ‘advisor’ role, and an academic at the College of Business and Economics, also sits on the international board of directors. Cornish said Golden Key has been “officially” recognised by ANU since it first came to Australia in the mid 1990s after its endorsement was approved by Academic Board and later the University Council. He denied the university’s letter is an “invitation” to join, but rather a “support letter”.

But it’s hard to deny a financial relationship. In the past, ANU has provided an undisclosed amount of money to students to pay for travel and accommodation to attend Golden Key’s international conferences, last year held on the Gold Coast, and in 2016 set to be held in Tuscon, Arizona.

“That’s not a relationship,” said Cornish. “That is supporting ANU students just as a member of the ANU table tennis team or the ANU women’s soccer team seeking funding from the university.” But unlike a varsity team representing a university, Golden Key members go in a private capacity, and with apparently little oversight from ANU itself.

“Every year, the Vice-Chancellor decides to offer a certain amount of funds for activities and if a student would like to attend [a Golden Key conference],” said Lu. “If any students come to us, we will usually ask them for a funding proposal. Any students who would like to go overseas on a trip, they need to propose the benefits and the funding costs.”

When interviewed by Honi Soit, Ang initially rejected the suggestion of a financial arrangement between ANU (and other universities) and Golden Key. But when pressed, he quickly conceded there was an arrangement “in-kind”, though would not go into detail.

“Some of our universities will do their own printing, and we’ll basically pay for that,” he said, adding that some campus chapter’s bank account is held “within” the university, but is solely controlled by the student president and deputy to spend on chapter activities and some scholarships.

Given Golden Key’s emphasis on funding student scholarships and hosting events, it spends comparatively little of its annual revenue to do this. Though Golden Key is registered with the Australian Charities and Not-for-profit Commission – a federal independent regulatory body that collects financial information from 55,000 operational charities and non-profits in Australia – it’s finances are vague at best.

Public records held by the Commission show Golden Key turned over $1.1 million in revenue over 2014 – almost all reportedly from membership fees – down from $1.3 million the year before. There is no reported revenue for corporate sponsorship arrangements in the financial reports.

Cornish explained most of the money was “ploughed back into scholarships” and running the annual Asia-Pacific conference. But the society’s financial reports tell another story. Of all its listed expenses in 2014, $1.1 million went towards costs including paying staff wages, travel costs, invitation costs, rent, professional fees, office supplies, ‘corporate allocation’, and miscellaneous expenses. Cornish told Honi a part of the revenue was sent back to the organisation’s Atlanta headquarters offshore, something that Ang described as an “on-paper allocation”.

“Most of the money is channeled back into Golden Key student activities,” said Cornish. But this assertion does not match up with financial records. According to 2014 reports, the total spent on member events or scholarships that year was just below $199,000, less than a fifth of total revenue.

Though it is unclear from its financial reports, Golden Key supplements part of its revenue with corporate sponsorship. Its website lists several major business partners, including Bank of America, Shell and Lenovo, as sponsors. While this may be innocuous enough at face value, it points towards a deeper direction within the organisation.

“We shouldn’t deceive ourselves,” Bernie Milano, the head of the KPMG Foundation told The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2002 after signing a corporate partnership with Golden Key. “Companies do this to have access to students. Students pay their dues to get a leg up in the job market.”

Indeed, the sponsorship gives corporations access to invaluable mailing lists of thousands of unwary students whose contact information was initially provided to Golden Key by universities like the ANU. Ang wouldn’t say how much Australian revenue came from sponsors, but many of Golden Key’s email newsletters contain advertisements for products offered by companies ranging from Shell marketing campaigns to Panasonic TVs, to credit cards offered by Bank of America in the US.

When Bernie Milano was invited to visit Golden Key’s lavish global headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia, he described the experience to The Chronicle with awe. “This is what you’d expect to see in the office of a CEO of a Fortune 100 company,” he said, “not that of a student-centered, non-profit organization.”

Certainly, on the surface, Golden Key presents itself as a student non-profit, but in reality it is a successful business model. It relies on the unending recruitment of new members to the society. After all, where member fees make up nearly all its reported revenue, recruitment is its main prerogative. While it presents itself as a philanthropic venture, there is no mistaking its business motives.

Its revenue is further supplemented by corporate sponsorship by companies seeking to tap into to Golden Key’s valuable mailing list of university students – a conventionally hard-to-reach market for advertisers. There is little net benefit for students to join, at least far less than the $100 joining fee could hope to cover. For the vast majority who join, under the impression the society is part of or officially linked to their university, they simply join a growing database of students to which corporate sponsors can target their marketing material.

Just as was shown in the case of Student VIP, the ultimate benefit, as with many such ‘student-oriented’ companies, remains squarely with those who operate it. Students, it’s worth reminding, are almost never the consumer, but are almost always the product.