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Golden Key International Honour Society: A Georgia original, recognizing young leaders worldwide

Bound together by academic achievement and a desire to give back, more than two million members make up a global movement that began nearly 40 years ago right here in Georgia.

Each day on college campuses around the globe, undergraduate and graduate members of Golden Key International Honour Society lead and participate in community service activities, developing practical skills they can use in the world they will soon inherit.

Bound together by their academic achievements, these young leaders are part of a movement that began right here in Georgia nearly 40 years ago. Many lines on the world map have been redrawn since then, but the organization’s leadership has stayed true to its culture of diversity and financial discipline, growing into the world’s largest honor society, with a mission to help its student members reach their potential.

A different kind of honor society

Golden Key started on the campus of Georgia State University in 1977. Like most traditional honor societies, Golden Key celebrates, recognizes, and encourages academic excellence—but that’s where the similarities end.

Traditional honor societies are often run by university faculty, who select members at their discretion, and which are meant primarily for recognition. One big factor differentiating Golden Key is membership criteria: it is based solely on academic performance; Golden Key welcomes the top 15% of students (sophomores and above) at colleges and universities worldwide. Famous Golden Key honorary members include Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu, and Elie Wiesel.

Further, Golden Key goes beyond recognition, channeling membership into hands-on community service. Members contribute more than 205,000 combined hours of service annually through more than 400 campus chapters around the world.

“Community service was a very popular idea, well-received by student members,” said Golden Key executive director Brad Rainey, who has been involved with the organization since its earliest days. “It grew through a lot of hard work, but also because it’s a very good concept. We encourage our student members to get involved and do things to make their campus and their community a better place.”

With guidance from Rainey and the board of directors, Golden Key has also started awarding $1 million in scholarships and grants annually to its members. To date, the organization has awarded more than $10 million in support, ranging from stipends for graduate school to research grants to student loan debt relief. Additionally, Golden Key started leveraging the international reach of the organization by funding travel to conferences across the globe.

“We believe that international exposure, the opportunity to travel to another country and sit down and learn from other Golden Key members, is invaluable to our members,” said Rainey.

The influence of globalization has fueled Golden Key’s expansion from a regional entity to a worldwide movement. Today, Golden Key is a $9 million annual operation, managed by 30 full-time Atlanta employees and smaller offices in Sydney, Australia and Pretoria, South Africa. Overseeing this far-reaching enterprise requires coordination and planning across multiple time zones and multiple currencies, among other variables.

“Our global footprint makes for many levels of complexity in our organization,” Rainey said. “It’s a bigger challenge than most people may realize. We have to address compliance with tax laws for multiple countries, for instance. I’ve learned that you simply must have good people to run an organization like this.”

Student-led community service

Effectively managing volunteers on the ground has also been crucial to sustaining Golden Key’s international growth. Local faculty advisers and student leaders volunteer for administrative duties, and though turnover presents challenges—student members in officer positions typically graduate after two years in office— Rainey and his board prefer to encourage fresh approaches than impose a set of top-down policies and expectations. “Chapters can only do as well as the chapter officers leading them,” said Rainey. “But we think they can do a better job of building innovative, new programs within our larger mission on their own than if we handed them a checklist.”

Instead of regulation, Golden Key works to unify chapter service through an education initiative called SPARK a Change. At the chapter level, community service is student-led, which helps foster invaluable learning and leading opportunities, but can also mean that causes vary widely from one chapter to the next. SPARK a Change is designed to explain community service in the context of a specific cause (like at-risk youth populations).

“We like our student members to get involved in activities and programs they care about,” Rainey said. “Leadership development opportunities come from student members deciding what they want to undertake, planning a new activity, and executing the steps to make it a success. Sometimes they’re not successful, but if they’re honest with themselves, they can learn an awful lot from not being successful.”

Adapting to the new college experience

As the college experience continues to evolve–changing campus demographics, online learning options—the Golden Key leadership team adapts their participation model. “We’re working to find new ways to resonate with student members,” Rainey said. “The model, how we interact with members and how members participate in a chapter, will have to be different if you’re not on campus.”

To that end, Golden Key is examining the role of mobile technology in participation and in connecting members to each other; it’s also linking members to intern programs that put Golden Key principles into practice and may lead to job opportunities.

Access to the talent Golden Key cultivates, in fact, is part of the reason corporations are so eager to invest in the organization, Rainey said, providing $1.30 in programming support for every dollar brought in through membership fees: “This is a demographic that attracts companies. They want to associate with our student members. They want to hire them.”

A dedicated Society

From the halls of Georgia State University to academic institutions all over the globe, shrewd financial planning and committed board leadership have been essential to Golden Key’s journey. Rainey noted that 100 percent of the board and staff make financial contributions to the honor society, a compelling testament to their belief in Golden Key’s mission. 

“Everybody believes in the organization, from leadership at the top to our members,” Rainey said. “We’re all united around the same thing. We want our student members to develop their full potential.”

Brian Carr is communications consultant for GCN.

is communications consultant for GCN.
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