One gets the impression that Ildiko Modla-Szalai takes things seriously. She’s polished, looks in control and pretty much unflappable. She wears a designer coat of worldly professionalism. With her almost neutral ‘international accent’ and catwalk-good looks, it’s incredibly hard to place her in the familiar shoeboxes of national stereotypes, that so many of us unwittingly slip into. (She’s actually Hungarian – but frankly if she’d had told me she was from anywhere in France or North/East Europe I wouldn’t have blinked - she simply encapsulates ‘Euro’). One gets a real feel for her intelligence and thoughtfulness when she starts to speak; this takes some time though, given her ability to encourage others to talk (including me! – the supposed interviewer) through her pertinent questioning whilst she intently listens. She’s got a way of nodding her tilted-head that gives her the appearance of being the consummate diplomat (amusing, as she was one in her past life – we’ll get on to that later).

But her sophistication is beautifully balanced as it becomes clear she is also a sleeves-rolled-up, hands-on type who has chosen to actively get involved and support a list of worthy projects, through the non-profit organization she’s developed and now runs, NEEDeed.

But before we understand why she set upNEEDeed, let me share a little of her background first. She was brought up in Budapest, but after finishing her studies in political science she moved to London - as a diplomat in the Hungarian embassy. It was there she met her (Hungarian) husband-to-be. The couple went home for a few years, before her husband was posted to Hong Kong. There she joined the Clinton Foundation, working on the introduction of electric vehicles, and clearly caught the bug of working on issues of personal passion and moral need. When her partner’s career again took the family in a new direction and they moved to Thailand (Ildiko, Norbert and their little girl Natalia), Ildiko did what so many of us aspire to do: she successfully turned the opportunity to her professional and personal advantage. Her first step was to contact a variety of NGOs to find a match between their needs and her own skills and capacity. However, she quickly realized the NGOs (mainly small-to-med sized) were massively in need of help on a wide range of projects and issues – and she began to also recognize the large numbers of possible helpers: people in a position similar to her own - trailing spouses. This group of individuals (typically females) had often left fascinating and fabulous careers with a huge breadth of skill sets, and were looking for opportunities for rewarding work and the chance to get involved and help the local communities. Ildiko says she “woke up one morning with this blinding realization of how to match NGO needs to ex-pat talent in a beautiful win-win solution”. She became a matchmaker – but in fact it is much more powerful that that. She set up NEEDeed as a non-profit strategic consultancy to help raise the bar for NGO’s – strategically assessing their needs, developing project outlines and then turning to the extensive expat community to staff the projects and realize them in a timely, results-driven way.

By this time in the conversation, Ildiko had become positively animated – it is clear she loves what she does and finds the results incredibly rewarding. Over the 4 years since inception Ildiko and her management team have worked with a broad range of NGOs and completed many successful projects. When her husband’s job was moved to Singapore, rather than just imploding with rage (as some of us may just have been tempted to do!), or winding down the initiative – Ildiko decided to scale UP the organization. In the last year NEEDeed has begun to explore opportunities in the broader South East Asian region. From Singapore, she plans to manage projects in many surrounding countries and tap into the networks of ex-pat professionals on the ground there. In the future volunteers based in Singapore could also help staff projects across the region.

NEEDeed may be registered as a non-profit, but it runs as a social enterprise – aiming at working sustainably as a business. To that end, Ildiko will continue working with NGO clients but is also expanding to offer corporates expat spouse support, as an external service provider. Again this is a win-win arrangement – corporates increasingly recognize the all-too-high costs of unsuccessful relocations, typically caused by family settlement issues (and often because the trailing spouse hasn’t been able to manage the work-to-not/new job/culture transition). NEEDeed offers a very tangible solution and sense of purpose for trailing spouses – with the chance to forge strong bonds with their team members and the local community. NEEDeed also provides employees skilled volunteering opportunities at its partner non-profits, as part of its services to corporations.

We were coming to the end of the allocated time for the interview and I needed to temper my growing enthusiasm for NEEDeed (maybe I should join one of their awesome projects too? – but no, concentrate on writing your book Alexandra!) and turned back attention to Ildiko. Restoring focus was worth the effort – still waters run deep, and our series of Random Questions offers some more interesting insights into the person behind the passion.


Interviewed by Alexandra Touchaud: storyteller and artist @

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