Feb. 20, 2013 -- For the first time, foreign billionaires including Sir Richard Branson are locking arms with U.S. counterparts to sign "The Giving Pledge"—a commitment to give half their wealth to a mega-charity created in 2010 by Warren Buffett and Bill and Melinda Gates.
"Early on, the Giving Pledge was predominantly an American phenomenon," says Peter Newcomb, a Bloomberg News editor who compiles Bloomberg's list of global billionaires. Giving away one's money, says Newcomb, is an idea that traditionally has been more appealing to Americans than Europeans. "It was not really a European sensibility. Now you're beginning to see that change."
Of the 12 new signatories to the Pledge, one-each comes from Australia, Germany, India, Malaysia, Russia, South Africa and the Ukraine. Five more come from the U.K., according to a Giving Pledge statement. These names bring to 105 the number of billionaires who have signed so far.
The newcomers include the famous—The UK's flamboyant Branson and his wife Joan—and the not-so: Patrice and Precious Motsepe of South Africa, whose $2.67 billion fortune, according to Forbes, comes from mining. Patrice, says Forbes, is the first and only black billionaire from Africa.
Newcomb says he was surprised to see Branson give his name to a group effort. "He's such a huge personality," explains Newcomb.
Like other new signers of the Pledge, Branson made his commitment by letter. "Early on in my life," Branson writes, "I realized that personal 'stuff' really didn't matter. Joan and I lived on a houseboat, and one day it sank. We realized that we missed nothing except our treasured photo albums.
"Later our house in London caught fire, destroying everything inside. Last year our home in the British Virgin Islands was completely gutted as a result of a lightning strike. Were so relieved that everyone got out safely that even the loss of photo albums and notebooks were of little consequence."
Branson's insurer may be next to sign the Pledge if this trend holds up.
Branson wants, he says, to make "a positive difference" in the world. As he and his wife are able to take their monies out of Virgin Group, they intend to target such causes as the reducing carbon emissions, protecting nature and resolving conflict.
Fellow U.K. signatory David Sainsbury inherited a grocery-store fortune that Forbes says is now worth $1.1 billion. "The approach of my wife, Susie, and I to philanthropy is very simple," his letter begins, suggesting that the first object of his giving perhaps should be the worldwide promotion of better grammar.
Victor Pinchuk of the Ukraine, whose $4.2 billion fortune, according to Forbes, comes from banking and the manufacture of steel pipe, says he wants to help his country promote the rule of law.
"In our part of the world," Pinchuk writes, "the legacy of communism has made many people more skeptical of the wealthy than in Western countries. I want to convince some of them that successful entrepreneurs and business leaders can be constructive, inventive and active contributors to making everyone's life better."
Vladimir Potanin of Russia writes that he views giving away half of his $14.5 billion fortune (estimated by Forbes) as a way of protecting his children "from the burden of extreme wealth, which may deprive them of any motivation to achieve anything in life on their own."
He hopes his example will inspire other Russians to be generous, and that his signing of the Pledge "will demonstrate to the world that the Russian traditions of philanthropy are coming back."