If you’re researching Golden Key, I’m willing to bet that you are a university student and sitting next to you right now is a letter congratulating you on gaining entry … to a society you didn’t even know existed. There’s something distinctively Hogwartian about this method of introduction (apart from the disappointing absence of owl messengers), which is perhaps why so many people are dubious. Then, of course, there’s the $100 membership fee which, no matter how you word it, makes the interaction feel like “hey, I’ve just met you and this is crazy, but give me $100 and you’ll get something … maybe.”
Golden Key is an invite-only society for high-achieving university students that has attracted more than two million members since it formed in the 1970s. It now has more than 390 chapters at campuses around the world.
Here’s how Golden Key describe themselves:
“Golden Key is the world’s largest collegiate honor society. Membership into the Society is by invitation only and applies to the top 15% of college and university sophomores, juniors and seniors, as well as top-performing graduate students in all fields of study, based solely on their academic achievements.”
When you venture beyond what the organisation says about itself, a different picture emerges; one constructed within the world of online forums and study groups which routinely butcher Golden Key with remarks like these:
“It’s a freaking scam, albeit a legal one. Something like Amway. Just Google and you’ll find out. Some employers even blacklist people who list Golden Key because it shows that they were scammed!”
“I must admit that I giggle when I see it on someone’s resume.”
“Whoever came up with it is undoubtedly on a yacht sailing away with a bunch of hot girls and a bowl of grapes laughing wickedly at all the prestigious students sigh [sic].”
There are dozens of threads filled with similar comments on sites like Whirlpool, Reddit, Study Mum, Essential Baby, Dishboards and Quora. Amongst the negativity you’ll find the disappointed voices of students who came to the internet with a kind of Potter-esque excitement they’re now embarrassed about. They’re asked “don’t tell me you got scammed by the Golden Key Society too?” and told (usually with some variation of the word ‘wank’) that it’s “a waste of time and effort”. Dejection and shame hide in the subtext of their words as they bravely proclaim they were never that interested anyway and will just bin the letter.
A lot of claims are thrown about on these forums and it’s easy to be swayed by the volume of the negativity. However, not a single commenter has offered any evidence to support their conjecture. Craving the kind of proof neither the online forums nor the marketing-driven Golden Key website could offer, I decided to hunt it down myself.
The allegations against Golden Key
To give you an instant snapshot of the complaints, here are the keywords sized according to frequency:
In long-form, the concerns boil down to the following 10 themes:
The society is pretentious;
You don’t get enough/any value for the $100 you pay;
Students’ personal information is being given by universities to Golden Key;
Student details are sold to corporate sponsors;
Executive wages and expenses for international trips and ceremonies are high while scholarship expenditure is low;
You can finish in the top 15% of a class one time, bomb the rest but still be a member;
It’s a pyramid scheme, Ponzi scheme or investment scheme;
Being in the top 15% isn’t that special, as evidenced by Golden Key’s 2.4 million members;
Golden Key members/PR are corrupting the Wikipedia page;
With such divisiveness online, putting Golden Key on your resume might actually be detrimental to your job prospects.
These allegations were what drove my investigation.
Getting a foot in the Golden Key door
In order to gain access to board meetings, ceremonies and financial information, I accepted my offer of membership to Golden Key. In writing this article, I also made the decision to forego any benefits I may have been able to pursue through my membership as I would not want the independence and integrity of this work to ever come into question. I made Golden Key aware from the outset that this would be an independent investigation. While they confirmed this was understood, they did push quite a lot of marketing material in my direction.
Their approach in general has been a strange blend of defensiveness and willingness to help. On first contact, I spoke to a representative who was aware of the negativity online and was eager to help. However, she said they would need to run everything by the US office and legal team before deciding who should speak to me and how they would approach it. This trend persisted for the duration of my investigation.
My first interviewees were former president of Golden Key’s Swinburne chapter, Katrina Davis, and university relations officer, Elyse Heslehurst. When I arrived, I was met with big smiles and happy energy. But then they did something no interviewee I have met has ever done before: they set a phone down next to mine. “We’re going to record this too.”
To be fair, this is an organisation receiving a lot of bad press. A certain degree of caution is understandable. Still, I filed these oddities away in the back of my mind, wondering what part of the bigger picture they’d eventually form.
I had the women respond to each of the allegations above. I did the same with John Devereaux, head of Student Life at Deakin University and owner of the signature at the bottom of Deakin students’ Golden Key invitation letters. The rest of my investigation took me through ceremonies and events, government agencies, university representatives, Golden Key employees, student members and even middle-of-the-night phone calls to the US. I’ve distilled it down to the essential information and evidence so you can draw your own, informed conclusions.
What does a Golden Key ceremony look like?
I am not a fan of ceremonies, nor the unpleasant power they have to dilate time through methodically applied boredom. But I went to Golden Key’s new member award night because it was the best way to see for myself if the society was pretentious. I also didn’t want to miss out if there was any Skull-and-Bones-style weirdness to get involved in. While I wouldn’t describe it as fun, the event was surprisingly quick and efficient. No time was wasted on secret handshakes or strange induction rites. There were no hooded figures lurking ominously in the background. No virgin sacrifices were made, no goblets of blood passed around and not a single ego was salaciously stroked (not in my line of sight anyway). The most pretentious thing there was a horde of tiny branded cupcakes.
The first allegation to gain some traction
On the train ride home from the ceremony, I browsed through the top search results for the organisation. The back-end of Golden Key’s Wikipedia page reveals an endless, tail-chasing, dogfight of content being deleting and reinstated. Unsourced controversial information will be removed and replaced with equally unsourced praise. Then another contributor will put their thing down, flip it and reverse it. This exchange has been cycling back and forth since 2006 and editors from both sides of the battle have been flagged as having potential conflicts of interest.
An editor going by the username AHouska removed all reference to the controversy surrounding the society. It was noted that this username seems likely to be connected to Golden Key’s director of global operations and membership, Ashlyn Houska. A conflict of interest warning was issued and the editing attempt reversed. Whatever you may think of Wikipedia, the site has a strict policy against people with a vested interest — say employees of a company — having involvement in the creation of what is intended to be independent, non-biased reference material.
Swinburne’s Heslehurst neither confirmed nor denied Golden Key’s involvement with the Wikipedia warfare: “Literally anyone can go in there and edit, so it’s not a reputable site by any means. We have a marketing employee and I assume they would be in there trying to make sure everything is correct. Not remove anything just because it’s controversial but ensuring that there isn’t any false information.”
While many of her edits were redacted, AHouska was successful in removing accusations of unreasonably high expenditure on corporate wages and failure to give any kind of return on investment to members. While this was upheld due to a lack of evidence for the allegations, it reflects the most commonly raised concern among Golden Key detractors.
What is going on with the $100 membership fee?
I took a number of angles to investigate this, starting in the most obvious place: with students who’ve paid to become members. Here’s what they had to say:
As promising as these stories make membership seem, there’s a catch. Golden Key boasts a membership base in the multi-millions. In discussing whether Golden Key is an investment scam (more on that later), Heslehurst unintentionally struck on a troubling point: “We have 2.4 million members globally and not all of them are getting a scholarship. They have to apply and put in the effort to be selected”. But with such high membership numbers, if everyone went for the available opportunities, many would still miss out.
Her Swinburne counterpart Davis lessened the impact of this consideration, explaining, “the 2.4 million membership base includes all students who’ve been accepted since 1977”. However, Golden Key has a strong focus on expansion and is, by its own admission, “the world’s largest honour society”. With such a large membership body, there’s no escaping the fact that a portion of their profits come from people paying up and then either not doing anything in or with Golden Key or failing in their attempts to do so.
What is Golden Key doing with all this money?
I asked the organisation for a breakdown of where the membership money goes. I also requested detailed employee expenses so I could compare this with other non-profit organisation. As a member, Golden Key are obliged to provide this information to me in accordance with the Australian Charities and Non-Profits Commission (ACNC) governance standard 2:
“A charity’s members are its ‘owners’ and form an important part of any charity. Members are entitled to know how a charity is acting and using its resources (finances and any assets) on their behalf.”
The organisation stalled on this, citing delays due to waiting on auditors who were needed to ensure the information was displayed accurately for the general public. What I received, when the data was finally sent through, was a pre-made pie chart which buried employee expenses in other categories.
I followed up on this as, whether it was intentional or not, presenting the data this way would disguise any potential overspending on wages, travel, the vaguely termed “staff costs” and other categories.
In response, I was provided with the following information:
As far as sumptuous holidays go, Heslehurst says she wishes that was a perk of the job. “Only certain employees are allowed to travel. Brad Rainey [Golden Key Executive Director] only travels internationally for events. Any travel outside of that is at his own expense,” she said. Rather than fancy yachts complete with grape-feeding babes, Heslehurst claims Golden Key’s membership money goes towards funding for chapters and the provision of scholarships. “We award around $500,000 annually in global scholarships. Since 1993, we’ve given over $2.5 million just in the Asia-Pacific region,” she said.
Despite the stalling and strange representation of information, when you get down to the numbers there’s nothing financially awry. All the organisation’s annual reports are online and publicly available through the ACNC website. They are independently audited and I could find no connection between the auditor and Golden Key or any of its board of directors. Their financial information is vague but they did provide explanations when asked. The ACNC confirmed no action has ever been taken by them to sanction Golden Key for any wrongdoing. Had such an event taken place, by law, it would have to be published on the ACNC website. A thorough search of Austlii (a source for Australian legal matters) revealed no legal action of any kind relating to Golden Key.
There is no documented reason to suspect Golden Key of financial fraud. Deakin’s John Devereaux arrived at the same conclusion. “There is nothing we’ve been able to identify in official documents that raises enough concerns for us to question the relationship we have with them,” he said. While his use of the word “enough” before “concerns” was an eyebrow-raiser when I first heard him say it, the further I got in my investigation, the more I understood what he was getting at. There’s a lot of oddness with Golden Key, but on paper nothing seems wrong. There just aren’t enough concerns.
Pyramid and Ponzi scheme accusations
While we’re on the subject of financial matters, this one is easy to clear up. Golden Key does have a hierarchical structure but it does not match the definition of a pyramid scheme outlined in the Australian Competition and Consumer Act (2010). It doesn’t even resemble the technically legal version of a pyramid scheme: multi-level marketing (MLM). For it to be classified as MLM, it would need to be functioning in a way where members recruit other members, build up territories and move up the hierarchy as they get more members under them who are, in turn, recruiting new members, all making money from their own recruits and the recruits of those they recruit. Golden Key does not operate like this. Every member I spoke to confirmed they receive no pay from Golden Key. Devereaux stated, for the record, that Deakin receives no money from Golden Key, nor do any Deakin employees. And Golden Key receives no funding from Deakin.
The Ponzi scheme model doesn’t fit either, although there is an interesting correlation. In a Ponzi scheme, members believe they are receiving returns from investment when they are actually just being paid from the pockets of new investors. The trick is to get investors to keep their money in the scheme so you never have to actually pay out. Golden Key does not claim to be investing membership money, nor does it promise any financial gain from the investment you’re not making. However, it does offer scholarships, awards and overseas trips which are funded, in large part, by fees from new members. This is likely why the comparison was drawn; however, it’s important to understand this is how many legitimate operations — from short story competitions to the lottery — are run. Prizes are funded, in part, by willingly donated entrance fees with no duplicitousness involved.
Davis explained Golden Key’s status as a non-profit makes the concept of profiteering next to impossible. “They have to give a certain portion of the money that comes in back to the community. If Golden Key is expanding, it’s through membership growth and recognising students who’ve worked hard to get into the top 15% of their university.”
So does this mean Golden Key is legit?
On paper, Golden Key stacks up. Yet, for so many people, something about the organisation doesn’t feel right. As each accusation lost its foundation, I started to wonder what was really at the root of all this ire. Then I found something odd.
In 2013, Golden Key resigned from the Association of College Honor Societies (ACHS). What struck me in particular about the announcement from ACHS was the inclusion of a checklist to judge the credibility of an honour society and accompanying statement:
“Not all organizations calling themselves “honor societies” subscribe to the high honors standards of ACHS.”
An employee of ACHS told me why she thought Golden Key was removed but she wasn’t working with ACHS at the time and the information was hearsay, so I can’t publish it. I spent the next 10 weeks trying to get confirmation from ACHS. Neither my emails nor my phone calls (made at all hours of the morning to try to catch them during the US working day) were successful. I was unable to get a straight answer out of them for the record as to why Golden Key was removed from their society. All I got was another checklist (which you can view here).
The checklist warns of groups with high membership numbers that may be looking to maximise revenue, stating “it is wise to consider whether it is truly an “honor” to belong to a group that will accept any and everyone who is willing to pay the membership fees.” This was one of the concerns raised in the online forums and, with 2.4 million Golden Key members (and counting), seems a relevant consideration.
Golden Key provided the following response in regards to their resignation from ACHS:
“The Golden Key Board of Directors elected to withdraw our affiliation from the ACHS in 2013 because the Board did not believe that ACHS membership provided any value for our members. In particular, the Board determined that it failed to provide value to our international members who represent more than 25 percent of our membership base.”
According to Heslehurst, Golden Key wanted to be able to offer membership to students from the second year of university on. Outside America, many degrees are only three years long. so earlier membership means more opportunities for students. The problem this raises is that, since Golden Key offers lifetime membership, regardless of ongoing academic performance, earlier membership offers don’t take into account the performance of students in their later, more difficult years of study. Students who performed well in their first year could slip out of the top 15%, meaning Golden Key can’t guarantee that they’re meeting their own academic benchmark. This isn’t the only way Golden Key are in the dark about the academic performance of their members.
Privacy concerns: they’re not what you think
Devereaux was adamant Deakin students have nothing to worry about privacy-wise. “Golden Key simply ask us for controlled access to information so they can invite students to participate in their society. We would never breach our privacy obligations to students. So we don’t actually give them any student’s private or confidential information.”
Despite appearances, student information is not given to Golden Key. Any offers emailed to members are generated based on selections made by the students when they complete their online membership form. Heslehurst confirmed this: “We don’t get any student personal information until they accept membership and input it themselves. We don’t sell student details to corporate sponsors. And at any point you can opt out from Golden Key emails.”
While this satisfies one concern, it creates another. Golden Key’s lack of actual knowledge of student grades means they don’t have the data to back up their top 15% claim. Heslehurst admitted Golden Key are in the dark as to how students are selected. “We don’t get access to that information due to privacy laws. Each university devises their list of the top 15% however they wish to devise it. Some do it by faculty, some by year level. Golden Key doesn’t get access to any student information so we can’t see GPAs or grades.” The only time Golden Key would see this information is if a student applied directly for membership.
Unknowable data and legislative grey areas
There are no regulations specifically laid out for honour societies in Australia because, apart from Golden Key, honour societies aren’t really a thing here. Even in the US, where they abound, membership with ACHS isn’t compulsory. So, while it may seem problematic for Golden Key to claim their members are in the top 15% yet have no precise data to back this up, there’s nothing legally wrong with it. In fact, to meet ACNC charitable guidelines, Golden Key is actually better off being less restrictive with member access as overly exclusive groups run the risk of failing the public benefit test.
According to Devereux, this lack of precise knowledge doesn’t undermine Golden Key’s ability to boast a top 15% cohort. “We can guarantee that based on the criteria Golden Key give us, the students we identify meet that benchmark. It’s top 15% at a course level. It has to be over a period of time, not just from an individual unit. One HD won’t put you in the top 15%,” he said.
Once again, this places Golden Key in a position that raises an eyebrow but isn’t “concerning enough”. The organisation’s top 15% claim is delivered not just to current and prospective members but to organisations who offer grants and scholarships to Golden Key and seek graduate employees from their pool of members. Yet the privacy work-around and member-for-life policy make Golden Key’s true academic benchmark unknowable.
With strict processes followed by the university, Devereaux doesn’t see this as a problem. “The value for students is in the networking opportunities it opens up. If it helps with employment opportunities, all the better. As for employers, they’re pretty savvy. Just because a student is a high academic achiever, doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily be a good employee. So I don’t think employers would be making decisions based solely on Golden Key membership,” he said.
So what can we make of all this?
While there are definitely some strange aspects to Golden Key, there’s no documented evidence of any wrongdoing. It’s possible the organisation is bold enough to give me falsified financial information and talented enough to have deceived the independent auditors and government bodies they’ve had to report to annually for the last 41 years. Possible, but not likely.
Yet the accusations flowing through online forums have had the power to throw significant shade on the organisation and deter students from joining. As Davis explained, “it’s not so much affecting Golden Key as an organisation, it’s affecting the students who’ve dedicated so much time and energy to their endeavours”. Davis and her chapter do regular work in the community, reading to vision-impaired children and collecting school supplies for kids in disadvantaged communities. Like other chapters, they also organise events that allow members to network with academics and important industry figures. She worries that this good work may be tainted by the allegations thrown around online.
Haslehurst acknowledged these concerns but explained that, on the employer level at least, the forums aren’t having a detrimental impact. “We work really hard with the AAGE, a graduate employee program, to make sure that all graduate employers know the hard work it took to get into Golden Key and know what it means to be a member. So a lot of employers, even outside that program, understand what Golden Key is and see it in a positive light,” she said.
While writing this story means I’ll get nothing more for my $100 membership fee than a cupcake and a tiny gold pin, there’s no denying the organisation has had tangible benefits for at least the members I spoke to. Haslehurst’s oft-repeated catch-phrase was “the opportunities are there. You just have to put the effort in to get them”.
Perhaps the real controversy with Golden Key lies in the fact that, with enough volume and repetition, anonymous online users can damage the reputation of an organisation — or an individual — without a scrap of proof. The internet offers an unprecedented platform for the creation of narratives that influence our understanding of reality. Regardless of what evidence comes to light, if people hear a story often enough, it sticks. Pushed into a defensive position, anything the organisation does to try to protect its image is viewed through a lens of presumed guilt. Once such an image has been created, it’s difficult to ever shake it off.